Red Mullet with Fennel and Orange
It’s difficult not to notice the arrival of autumn, even if you’re still waiting for a summer that never was. The chestnuts are about to burst through their armoured shells, wild mushrooms are shyly poking their caps through the soil, and summer fruits are looking unhappy and getting pricier on the market stands. Today we’ll welcome the change of seasons with a recipe that makes the most of a traditionally autumnal vegetable, fennel, but has the lightness and playfulness of a summer dish.
Fennel (venkel, in Dutch) is easy to find at the market these days, and at a good price too (about €1 per bulb). It is native and popular around the Mediterranean, particularly in the south of France, where it features frequently in fish stews and other seafood preparations. Its crunchy texture and refreshing aniseed flavour pair well with the delicate sweetness of fish. Today, we’re pairing it with red mullet, a beautiful small fish that is very economical and packs a lot of flavour.
Cut 1 bulb of fennel in half and then slice it finely lengthwise. You’re looking for 1-2mm slices, but no need to get fussy. Heat a frying pan over medium/low heat, add some extra virgin olive oil and the fennel. Season with sea salt and cook for 4-5 minutes, tossing frequently. The fennel should become translucent and tender, but retain some of its crunch. It should remain quite pale, but a little colour around the edges is fine. When ready, arrange it in the centre of your plates and drizzle a little olive oil to keep it from drying. Replace the dry pan on a medium heat and add 4 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar. It should fizzle as it hits the hot pan; reduce this by half, to a syrupy consistency. Drizzle this over and around the fennel. Now, heat a non-stick pan over medium heat and when ready, add some olive oil. Take 6 red mullet fillets (you may find them as fillets in the market, or ask your fishmonger to fillet 3 mullets for you) and add them to the pan skin-side down. As you add each piece, keep your hand gently on it, so it doesn’t curl up; a few seconds will do the trick. Here, you need to have your senses working for you. Your ears and eyes should tell you whether you have the temperature in the pan right. The fish should be sizzling in the oil, but not so violently that it starts smoking. If your fish was dry before you put it in the pan, it will not be spitting oil all over the place, but it will gently mind its own business, while you season it with sea salt. Fish cooks quickly and after about 1.5 minute you can turn the fish over and cook for another 30 seconds. Arrange three fillets on each mound of fennel with a delicate touch. To finish, add one tablespoon of fennel seeds to the oil you cooked the fish in and let it toast for 30 seconds. Then add the juice of one orange and half its rind and reduce this by half. Drizzle over and around the fish and serve immediately.
This article first appeared in the Universiteitskrant in 2011