For about a decade my parents had a house on the shore at Morro Bay, a small hamlet on California’s Central Coast, approximately half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles. A six hour drive from San Diego by car, in some other ways Morro Bay was considerably further away.
When north-bound Highway 101 on the Santa Barbara coast turns inland through the Gaviota Gorge Tunnel and emerges on the approach to Buelton there is a tangible sense of regional change. “Toto,” I would say to my daughter, Gwennie, “we’re not in Southern California anymore.” And we were not. The vegetation seemed to have changed. The light seemed to have changed. Often, it seemed, even my mood had changed.
California’s Central Coast is something of an anomaly. The player with the losing hand in the water rights battles that shaped California’s patterns of development and wealth, the Central Coast has no big cities, no major movie industry and far less in the way of sprawling suburban purgatories. Who, exactly, lost at that table? While the Monterrey cannery that John Steinbeck wrote about in Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row has been transformed into an outlet mall, many aspects of Central California life remain unchanged from the world that Steinbeck would have known. The fishing boats still gather in Morro Bay’s harbor bringing back the bounty on offer in the waters off the area’s long walking beaches.
And it was from Giovanni’s Fresh Fish Market, only steps away from those boats, that we bought the fish the first time we made a dish that has come to symbolize so much of what that area stands for – food prepared simply but with care using marvelous ingredients at the height of freshness. With a well-developed Farmers Market system and superb purveyors, it is almost harder to screw up a dish than make it well. And that is the key to this dish: keep it simple but use superb locally sourced ingredients.
When we made this dish originally we used the best looking fish at Giovanni’s which happened to be some gorgeous Halibut fillets. The dish is terrific that way. For the version here we used fillets of Sea Bass acquired from Poppa’s Fresh Fish at the Adams Avenue Farmer’s Market. You can’t go wrong either way. Also, if that Tomato Confit recipe looks familiar to you it may be because it is the same one used in the Revuelto of Clams and Mushrooms with Tomato Confit that was the first article on this blog. One final note: there would be many cooking techniques that would work superbly with this dish including pan roasting, sous-vide and, depending on whether it has skin or not and the precise texture, even grilling.
Steamed Sea Bass with Tomato Confit
For the Tomato Confit:
- 12 Roma tomatos
- ¼ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 3-4 sprigs of fresh thyme
- Salt and Pepper to taste
For the Sea Bass:
- 4 ¼ pound fillets of Sea Bass (Halibut, Grouper or other similar fish would work well too
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- 4 spinach leaves (or any other green such as kale, cabbage, chard or the like)
For the Garnish:
- Good quality Balsamic (or Sherry) Vinegar
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Steamed baby zucchini
- Finishing salt (such as Maldon or Hawaiian)
- Make the Tomato Confit. Bring a kettle of water to a boil. Meanwhile, with a sharp paring knife cut out and discard the stems of each tomato and score the opposite (pointed) end. Place the tomatoes in a large bowl. Pour the boiling water over the tomatoes and let them sit there until the skin peels easily – about fifteen to twenty seconds. Drain the tomatoes and cover with ice. Peel the tomatoes (once they are cooled) and cut them in quarters. Place them in a small saucepan with the thyme, the olive oil and the salt and pepper. Bring them to an ever-so-brief boil over high heat and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer the tomatoes until they have completely lost their texture (for about one hour).
- Make the Fish. Bring about three inches of water to a boil in a pot to which you can find the steamer basket. The best, but not only, tool for the job would be a wok and a bamboo steamer basket. Briefly rinse the fillets under running water. Dry them, season them with kosher salt and pepper and place the fillets over a piece of spinach in the basket of a steamer. When the water in the pot reaches a rolling boil place the basket over the pot and steam the fish for ten minutes or until they just flake.
- Plate the Dish. Place a Sea Bass filet on each plate, topped with some of the tomato confit. Sprinkle some finishing salt on top of the tomato confit. Drizzle some extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar around the plate to be incorporated with each bite of the fish.