Of all the things that I have sewn recently (it’s a list that includes my new sofa cover, the paw of a cuddly bear and a bolt of silk reincarnated as gift-wrap) stitching the stomach of a fish is definitely up there as the most unusual. And yet here I go – approaching two sea bass like a YTS surgeon on her first day, armed with a needle and some racy red thread that feels a bit inappropriate.
Stuffing the cavity of a roasted whole fish imbues the meat with a wonderful depth of flavour as it cooks. It also gives just the right amount of heartiness for these still-a-bit- nippy evenings of early Spring. It’s not the kind of heartiness you get from a sticky braise – I am now officially over anything like that until September at least – but it’s just enough to take the chill off.
Sea bass with mushroom and parsley stuffing – for a pair of sea bass to serve two people
- 1tbsp olive oil, plus more for rubbing into the fish
- 2 shallots, finely chopped
- 1 large (or 2 smaller) cloves of garlic, peeled and mushed with the back of a spoon
- 3 chestnut mushrooms
- 4 tbsp dry cider or white wine
- a handful of flat-leafed parsley, chopped
- half a lemon
- 1-2 tbsp breadcrumbs
- a domestic sewing needle and some brightly coloured thread
Preheat the oven to 200C.
1. Heat 1tbsp of olive oil in a small saucepan or frying pan. Add to it the shallots and then the garlic.
2. Chop the mushrooms quite small and add them to the pan once the shallots and garlic have nicely softened but not coloured. Keep giving it a good old stir as the mushrooms start to cook. Season.
3. Pour over the cider or wine. Turn up the heat to bubble off the booze for a couple of minutes, then turn the heat back down again to gently continue. Stir in the chopped parsley and a squeeze of lemon. Give it a minute before taking it off the heat.
4. Stir in the first tablespoon of breadcrumbs. They’re there to soak up the remaining liquid and give you a stuffing that is moist but neither stodgy nor soggy. Add more breadcrumbs as you think you need. Taste for seasoning.
5. Lay the (cleaned and gutted) fish into a roasting tin that is big enough for each one to lie fully flat. Slash the skin on both sides twice and then rub a little olive oil and salt into the skin. Now use your hands or a spoon to get your stuffing into the cavity of each fish. They need to be nice and full but not to bursting point.
6. The fish are stuffed so it’s time to stitch ’em up. To stop the stuffing falling out before/as you sew, it helps to stand them cavity uppermost and leaning against the tin’s sides.
Any good size domestic needle should go through the flesh easily enough with just a bit of pressure. Even the hotel sewing-kit ones that inadvertently packed themselves into your suitcase. Remember to knot your thread at the end so that it doesn’t come out as you sew. Your stitches should be no more than a cm apart (so that the stuffing doesn’t burst through the gaps) and close to the edges of the two sides of the fish. Stitch right along the length where you have stuffed.
7. Squeeze over some lemon and throw the lemon half into the tin too. Roast the fish in the oven for 25-30 mins.
8. Remember to remove the stitches before serving. Tug one end of the thread to carefully pull the whole stretch out or else snip at it. It will be easier to see what you are doing if you used a brightly coloured thread – my racy red appropriate after all.
Serve with accompaniments that don’t overwhelm the sea bass. You want to let the flavours of the fish and its stuffing be the star. I’d go for something like boulangère potatoes and wilted spinach with capers or toasted pine nuts.