A sim­ple Si­cil­ian feast of baked fish

In the sec­ond of our four-part se­ries on Ital­ian feast­ing, the unique, many-flavoured cui­sine of Si­cily is rep­re­sented by a clas­sic seabass baked in a sa­line crust, served with home­made aioli and pesto-tossed beans

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - Henry Dim­bleby and Jane Bax­ter Henry Dim­bleby is co-founder of Leon restau­rants and Lon­don Union food mar­kets @Hen­ryDim­bleby Jane Bax­ter is a chef and food writer based in Devon @bax­cooka

Igot my first im­pres­sion of Si­cil­ian feast­ing at school, when I stud­ied The Leop­ard as a set text. Giuseppe To­masi di Lampe­dusa’s novel, about the de­clin­ing for­tunes of a 19th­cen­tury Si­cil­ian no­ble­man, con­tains some of the most mouth-wa­ter­ing de­scrip­tions of food in all literature. But the ban­quet served at Prince Fabrizio’s ball reaches a crescendo of epi­curean deca­dence that verges on the sick­en­ing.

The ta­ble at the ball groans with so much food that most of it is never touched: lob­ster “boiled alive”, “chaud-froids” of veal, “steely lined” fish, tur­key, “rosy foie-gras un­der gela­tine ar­mour”, woodcock on toast with “their own chopped guts”, “and a dozen other cruel, coloured de­lights”. And for pud­ding “huge sor­rel babas”, Mont Blancs, “hil­locks of cho­co­late-cov­ered pas­try” that fall apart “with a squelch at a knife cleft”, and “shame­less ‘vir­gin’s cakes’ shaped like breasts”.

Our own ver­sion of a Si­cil­ian feast, you’ll be re­lieved to learn, is rather more mod­est. And, in fact, more au­then­tic. Prince Fabrizio’s ban­quet was in the uni­ver­sal style of the 19th cen­tury no­bil­ity, from St Peters­burg to Paris. True Si­cil­ian cui­sine has the unique history and ge­og­ra­phy of the place im­printed on it. A Mediter­ranean trad­ing hub con­quered var­i­ously by the Greeks, Nor­mans, Arabs, Spa­niards and Cata­lans, it in­cor­po­rates all sorts of “for­eign” in­flu­ences, from Eastern spices to toma­toes, those rel­a­tively re­cent ar­rivals from Amer­ica.

The cen­tre­piece of to­day’s feast is fish baked in salt – a Si­cil­ian clas­sic. When you first cook this dish it seems im­pos­si­ble to be­lieve that it will not be un­bear­ably salty. But fear not: the salt sets to a crust, hold­ing the mois­ture in the fish, and when you crack it open, it peels off in large chunks. Do this at the ta­ble, and sim­ply brush away any crumbs. You don’t even need to scale the fish, as the salt crust will pull the skin off with it.

With the fish we serve aioli – prob­a­bly first brought over by the Cata­lans – and beans with Trapanese pesto, a red pesto from the west coast port of Tra­pani, us­ing those Amer­i­can toma­toes. And to soak up the juices, we sug­gest potato cro­quettes (see online for recipe), well-cooked boiled pota­toes or a good sour­dough.

This is a par­tic­u­larly re­lax­ing feast to pre­pare as the fish, beans, and aioli are all just as good at room tem­per­a­ture – giv­ing you time, per­haps, to pre­pare some shame­less vir­gin cakes for pud­ding.

Fish cooked in salt

Any fish can be cooked whole in salt. We use seabass, but whole salmon is good, as are snap­per and tur­bot. Ask your fish­mon­ger for salt – they gen­er­ally buy it in bulk. Fine sea salt works, as does coarse. It sounds ob­vi­ous, but check that you have a bak­ing tray large enough for the fish to fit in and that it fits in your oven.

Serves 4-6

1½ kg whole seabass, cleaned 2 le­mons, sliced 3 bay leaves A bunch of fen­nel fronds or dill 2-3kg coarse salt

1 Pre­heat your oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Wash and dry the fish well. Stuff the cav­ity with the le­mon and herbs. Sprin­kle a layer of salt for the fish to sit on, about 1cm deep. Place the fish on the salt and pour the rest of the salt over and around the fish so most is cov­ered. It is OK for the head and tail to be vis­i­ble.

2 Place the fish in the pre­heated oven for 30 min­utes. Then re­move it and al­low it to rest for about 10 min­utes. It is quite nerve-rack­ing try­ing to guess if the fish is cooked – but a meat probe in­serted into the flesh will tell you the in­ter­nal tem­per­a­ture if you are wor­ried. You can also in­sert a me­tal skewer and feel if it is hot (or not). The fish will con­tinue to cook dur­ing the rest­ing time.

3 To serve, crack the salt and pull it away from the fish – it should take the skin with it. The fish can be served whole or the flesh re­moved to a serv­ing plat­ter.

Aioli

Makes about 300ml 2 gar­lic cloves, crushed to a paste with a sprin­kling of salt Juice of ½ le­mon 2 large egg yolks (at room tem­per­a­ture) 200ml rape­seed or sun­flower oil 50ml ex­tra vir­gin olive oil A pinch of cayenne pep­per Salt

1 In a food pro­ces­sor, mix to­gether the gar­lic with the le­mon and egg yolks.

2 Slowly pour in the oil in a thin stream, puls­ing to com­bine af­ter each ad­di­tion, un­til you have a glossy emul­sion. This can also be done by us­ing a whisk, adding the oil slowly and whisk­ing like crazy. If the aioli does split or sep­a­rate, start again in a clean bowl with a new egg yolk and whisk in the split mix­ture. Sea­son well.

Beans with Trapanese pesto

Serves 4-6

200g french beans 200g run­ner beans, trimmed, cut di­ag­o­nally into 1cm thick slices Salt and black pep­per

For the pesto

500g good plum toma­toes 3 gar­lic cloves, crushed 100g peeled al­monds, toasted A small bunch of basil, leaves only 3 tbsp olive oil 75g finely grated parme­san or pecorino 1 Peel the toma­toes by mak­ing a small slash in their skin and pour­ing boiling wa­ter over them. Leave for about 30 sec­onds be­fore drain­ing and re­fresh­ing. Peel and re­move the hard cores. Scoop out and dis­card the seeds, and then dice the tomato flesh.

2 Blitz the gar­lic with the al­monds and basil in a food pro­ces­sor. This can also be done in a pes­tle and mor­tar. Empty into a large bowl and stir in the toma­toes, cheese and olive oil.

3 Blanch the beans in lots of salted boiling wa­ter for a few min­utes or un­til just cooked (squeaky). Drain; re­fresh in cold wa­ter so they are just warm. Tos­soss in the pesto and sea­son well.

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