I Bought a Branzino!
Nope. It’s not a Vespa-type scooter or a little car. It’s a little fish.
A couple of months ago, while at the Saturday market, I was overwhelmed by the seafood choices I had no familiarity with. No halibut, salmon or rock cod here. There was fish I knew nothing about except for a couple I had ordered from menus: orata and branzino. “But what do I do with it?” Besides. I had neither a filet knife nor knife sharpener, so I was ill-prepared.
Having just returned from a visit to Seattle this week, (filet knife and EZE-Lap sharpener in hand), hankerin’ for fish*, and doing a “fast stroll” near the Naviglio Grande (the big canal) I found a street-side fish market in my path. “Uno branzino”, I said to the guy. He wrapped it up. I paid 4 Euro, 6 bucks. I threw it in my bag and went on to shop for fabric. (Fabric and fish in the same bag? Hmm.)
(*By the way, can one ” have a hankerin’ ” in Italy. I’m not sure the translation works.)
Saturday evening. Canal-side. The place was lively with people strolling at a slow pace. Here I was, trying to keep my usual 4.5 mile-per-hour Indian Trail pace. (Fat chance, Maureen. Take it easy! Relax for once.) Maybe that’s something Italy will teach me: how to stroll properly, without being “on a mission”.
At 7:00, I stepped into the little fabric store NOT like those in the U.S.! Dark, jammed floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall, and much of it had probably been there a long time. I was looking for, and found, fabric for a baby quilt. (Just try buying quilting supplies in Italian!) I left moments before they closed at 7:30.
It was the first time in 4 months I had gone out in public wearing blue jeans (!) and tennis shoes (not quite blinding white). I had been cleaning all day and felt like being comfy. At 8:00 in the evening, sleeveless, it was muggy enough that I was working up a sticky sweat. (All the more reason to slow down.) Most everyone else was either paired up or on-the-make, so blue jeans and tennis shoes never entered their minds, I’m sure!
Meanwhile, I had a scantily-wrapped branzino in my bag with baby quilt fabric, so I figured I’d better hustle to the grocery store, buy whatever else I needed, and get home and cook!
I hadn’t noticed at the fish stall that the fish had not been gutted. No problem. I’ve gutted many a fish in my day. And I found out that branzino, (which is actually a European Seabass), has a pretty wicked, spiny dorsal fin! A pair of scissors made short work of those half dozen thorns.
Based on it’s size, roughly 11″ stem-to-stern, I figured I could cook a branzino much like a nice-sized rainbow trout. Flour, salt, pepper, mixed herbs…and since I had just been in Seattle, I threw in some of Chef Tom Douglas’ Salmon Rub (Brown Sugar, Paprika and thyme). A little extra virgin in my new grill pan, crank up the heat and throw on the fish. Veggies searing in the pan next door promised a lovely dinner.
(By the way, note the pan in the upper left. I’ve boiled water for coffee twice and that’s the amount of white, calcium build-up that occurs! I have to scrub the pan hard every day.)
Ahh. The smell of fish cooking with oil. One would think it’s a good time to open the windows, especially on a muggy night! No way! I wouldn’t sleep all night; the mosquitos would eat me alive. I opted for the fishy smell and a good night’s sleep.
“Mr. Branzino” cooked for about 20 minutes or so. Perfection. A glass of Grillo from Sicilia, a couple slices of cornmeal bread and at 9:30 I was ready to eat. Note that the branzino is served up right alongside my Mac, my updated to-do list, the utility bill from the landlady, a job ticket, trip receipts and hardware warranty info.
Delicately flavored. White. Moist. Cooked perfectly. Mmm. In trout fashion, I lifted the tail and peeled the spine and upper half away from the lower. I didn’t eat the skin because trying to scale the fish earlier had been making more of a mess than necessary, so I simply lifted the fish flakes away from the skin and gobbled them. Then I flipped the other half, easily lifted the skeleton and enjoyed the rest of the fish. What a delicious meal!
The European seabass, Dicentrarchus labrax, also known as Morone labrax, is a primarily ocean-going fish that sometimes enters brackish and fresh water. It is also known as the sea dace. As a food fish, it is often marketed as mediterranean seabass, bronzini or branzini(“branzino” is the name of the fish in Northern Italy; in other parts of the country it is called “spigola” or “ragno”). In Spain, it is called “lubina”. It has silver sides and a white belly. Juvenile fish maintain black spots on the back and sides, a feature that can create confusion with Dicentrarchus punctatus. This fish’s operculum is serrated and spined. It can grow to a total length of over 1 m (3.3 ft) and 15 kg of weight.
Its habitats include estuaries, lagoons, coastal waters and rivers. It is found in the waters in and around Europe, including the eastern Atlantic Ocean (from Norway to Senegal), the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea.
It is mostly a night hunter, feeding on small fish, polychaetes, cephalopods and crustaceans.
The fish has come under increasing pressure from commercial fishing and has recently become the focus in the United Kingdom of a conservation effort by recreational anglers. In Italy the seabass is subject of intensive breeding in salt waters.