On cooking fish
I grew up watching my mum cook fish several times a week. It could be breaded and fried squid, grilled monkfish "lubina a la sal", "lubina al horno" or any other combination you could think of. For her, buying and cooking fish came naturally. For me it has taken some time and confidence in the kitchen to delve into the fish world. The funny thing is that once I have started buying and cooking it, I have realized that it is much easier and more rewarding (forget about the smell) than all the quiches I fearlessly made a couple of years ago.
I started baking before I started cooking, so when I began actually cooking savoury dishes and not just desserts, I naturally tried those things that were nearest to what I was doing in my baking: I baked quiches and savory tarts, no matter how long they took to make or how dirty the kitchen got. That is what I felt confident with, so that is what I made again and again. Fish was something to be had at mum's house or in a restaurant. I then got over my pastry obsession and actually cooked vegetables without the need of a pastry case. I didn't actually become a vegetarian because I have always loved meat and was capable of frying a steak, but the outside world could have started to think that I had turned into a veg-only hippie. At least I had gotten over the pastry phase.
Then I started experimenting with different cuts of meat and different types of cooking techniques: a roast loin of pork one day, an oxtail stew another where I felt I wanted to accept a challenge. Little by little my cooking repertoire began to expand with every new thing I tried to make, and then, but only then, did I reach the kind of cooking maturity required to go and actually buy and cook some fish. Even though there are millions of things that I still have to try, the fact that I am now as confident when holding a mackerel as I am holding an aubergine makes me quite proud and opens a world of opportunities.
The funny thing is that now that I have this world of opportunities in front of me, I turn to those simple fish recipes that I saw my mum make at home. When it comes to fish cooking I believe that simple is best and that the whole result of the dish depends on two basic things: choosing your fish well and not overcooking it. Mastering these two things has been easier than I thought and has made me realize how much easier roasting fish is than baking a complicated quiche with three different components to be made separately.
The trick of buying the best fish you can has already been discussed in many places so I won't get into it: firm fish, clear looking eyes…but I think the best thing is to actually find a fishmonger you like, stick to him or her and develop a relationship so that you can trust him/her.
The trick of not overcooking is easier than you might think and similar than I thought it would be to checking that a cake is done. A fish is done when it's flesh has lost that pinkish transparency we identify with the raw state and has turned opaque - generally whitish. This is easy to see on the outer surface of the fish when you have it placed on a baking tray in the oven skin side down but, as with cakes, you want to make sure that the fish is cooked through and that you will not find any pink below the white. In order to do that you just have to get a knife (again, as you would to check that a cake is done), insert it in the thickest part of your fish and have a look around to see how the whole cross section looks. Opaque? - it's done. Pinkish? leave it in the oven for a few minutes more and come back to check. Another advantage of this techniques is that you don't have to be so careful with opening the oven as when baking a cake. The fish will not loose all the air and sink in the middle, so especially when you are a first timer, check and check again.
Today's recipe of "lubina al horno" or sea bass roasted in the oven with potatoes is a very basic and versatile one you can use to cook different fish. I have tried it with sea bass and mackerel, so it works for blue or white fish. It is also a great way to convince people who don't love fish to start eating it. I actually have to confess that when I was younger, the part I enjoyed most were the salty sweet and incredibly flavorsome potatoes at the bottom of the dish. My mum knew, so the ratio of fish-potatoes varied dramatically from the adult plates to ours. Precisely because of that I think it is better to provide general guidelines rather than a fixed set of ingredients: you might want more or less potatoes at the bottom of your fish depending on how much you like them.
The secret to getting so much flavour into those potatoes is to fry them first, in plenty of extra virgin olive oil along with some diced onions and salt. You basically cook the potatoes completely before putting them below the fish in the baking tray. Remember that the fish takes very little time to cook and that there is nothing worse than an uncooked hard potato, so let them colour on the edges in the frying pan before you take them out of the frying pan.
Once the potatoes are cooked, most of your work is done. You just have to preheat your oven to 180-200ºC, lay the fish on top of the potatoes in a baking tray along with a bit of the olive oil in which the potatoes have cooked, salt the fish, fry some finely diced garlic in some more extra virgin olive oil, pour it over the fish and cook in the oven until it is done (this will depend on the size of the fish - that is why following the prodding rule explained before always works). You could also add some wine before putting everything in the oven. Take out of the oven as soon as the fish is cooked and portion up with the required ratio of potatoes to fish to match the diner's preference.
This time around I served the lubina with some "piparras" first which are a kind of small green peppers from the north of Spain which are usually pickled, but which I managed to find raw and just flash fried with some extra virgin olive oil and maldon salt.