I received an email from Kurt who made an attempt at the Pan Roasted Sea Bass recipe posted on my web site. He had a few problems and sent me some great questions describing in detail what had gone wrong. I immediately contacted my friend Chef Alan Bickel, an expert in seafood cooking, and asked him to look at the Sea Bass recipe to make sure it was correct and to help Kurt with his situation.
Here is what Kurt emailed me:
“I found your site looking for a good recipe for Chilean Sea Bass and have really enjoyed looking through all your recipes and tips. You have a fantastic site here!
I tried to make the sea bass the way you suggested and it came out looking nothing like yours and I’m sure it didn’t taste as good either. I have a couple of places where I think I went wrong and was wondering if you had a minute or two to offer some advice.
I got the fish from a local market and when they gave it to me, it was in one big piece (2 lbs) and I decided to cut it into 4 smaller pieces, once down the middle lengthwise then once across more toward the thicker side so I had 2 smaller thicker pieces and 2 bigger thinner ones. Was this the correct way to cut it? Or should I have just cut it like a swordfish steak?
Next, when I pan-fried it, I put it skin side down for 6 minutes but when I went to turn it, the skin peeled right off and the underside wasn’t cooked at all. As a result, I had to put it back into the oil more and it didn’t really brown up and crust at all, so after I popped it in the oven it came out very loose and had almost a milky look to it. Any idea what could have caused this? Or was I just impatient and should have let it sit longer on the stove?
My last question is about the mushroom and onion sauce. I couldn’t get it to thicken one bit and all the liquid cooked off leaving me with just sautéed mushrooms and onions. Is there some kind of trick to this?
I’m looking forward to trying some of the other recipes on the site. Keep up the fantastic work and thank you very much!”
Here is Chef Alan’s response to Kurt and I:
“As far as your recipe goes, you’re pretty much Spot On with the way we pan-sear fish in the kitchen. Your technique is great, and the finished dish is something that looks great! (I’m sure it tastes out of this world, too- Sea bass is one of my favorite fish, it has such a great flavor, and you can do just about anything with it!)
And now onto Kurt’s dilemma –
Kurt, from the sound of it, the way you’ve fabricated (cut up) your filet sounds about right (without seeing it, i really can’t be sure) You want to end up with roughly block-ish cuts, the thickness will simply dictate your cooking times. (Thicker fish= more time in the oven.)
Here is where I think you can improve on your methods.
1. Dry Your Fish! – especially if you are working with skin on filets, pat your fish dry with a towel, until no moisture readily comes off. (this will help produce your initial crust, as well as help prevent the fish from sticking.) Also, salting your skin a bit will help pull out the last of the moisture & add a bit of flavor.
2. Buy a Fish Spatula – Trying to turn fish with a pair of tongs or a grill spatula is a disaster waiting to happen…. you can find them in any store offering quality kitchen products, and can pick one up for about
$10-15. They’re designed specifically to slide under tender fish and help you turn it without breaking/tearing it. (this is one of the few little kitchen gadget/tools that i can’t live without.)
3. The soft, milky texture you are talking about usually comes from long cooking times at low temperatures, which in some cases can be quite delicious (as with slow poached salmon or halibut) but in your case, you want to make sure that your oven is cranked way up (at least 450)
The reason that this happens is when the fish protein begins to break down and coagulate (at around 160 degrees F) low temperature cooking will prevent the fish from drying out (firming up) and what seems like a reasonable cooking time (7-9 minutes) is barely enough to raise the internal temperature of the filet.
One reason that pan searing helps cook the fish is that it brings the outer part of the fish up to a very high temperature, thus shortening the cooking time (as does placing the fish in the oven in a hot pan.)
4. Ahh, pan sauces…. make sure you’ve got the pan on a low heat, you just want to simmer it, and if it seems that you’re almost out of liquid with no apparent sauce, try mounting it with 2-3 oz. of whole butter.
Mounting, you say??? It’s easy- just take a small piece of cold butter, add it to your pan, (over a low heat) and stir constantly, allowing the butter to melt slowly into the remaining liquid. This will give you a little more volume, as well as a velvety texture and richness that goes great over fish. (and Chicken. And Beef. And Lamb. And Shellfish. And Pork… get the picture?)
5. Lastly, sometimes it just seems that no matter how closely you follow directions, and how carefully you prepare your dish, things just don’t turn out right… The only thing you can do in this case is to try again, and with a little patience and experimenting, you’ll get there.”