THOSE of you who follow my column will have read last week about my passion for Provence. A Google dinner in Cannes for the world-renowned Lions Festival reignited my passion for Provençal produce, and this week, I want to share some simple seafood dishes inspired by the area.
The local larder in this region of southern France is enviable and the coastal location of Cannes means a huge selection of seafood such as sea bass, langoustines and shrimps, scallops – or coquilles Saint-Jacques as they tend to be called locally – sardines, sea urchins and octopus can all be found on menus and in home kitchens. These are all wonderful ingredients which need very little preparation as they are naturally so delicious and flavoursome.
The natural larder in the area also boasts remarkable fresh vegetables such as artichokes, peppers, corn on the cob, courgettes, and one of my favourites, courgette flowers. All can be enjoyed on their own, but all will perfectly complement the fresh seafood you’ll find from the shores. Locals head to daily and weekly markets, and if you ever get a chance to visit them, you’ll appreciate their quality and freshness.
When it comes to preparing seafood the Provençal way, simplicity is the key to let the flavours shine through. This sea bass dish is a great example, as the fish is cooked very simply, but very carefully, to ensure a soft flesh and crispy skin. You may want to sit it on a bed of vegetables that still have plenty of bite. Sea bass is a lovely sweet, white, textured fish, and you’ll often find it served with traditional Provençal flavours like tomatoes, olives and fresh herbs. I’ve given my dish a little twist and like to serve it with fennel and a very fresh, light sauce which has a little hint of citrus. This is also typical of the area and gives a nod to the sun-drenched summers in Provence.
Try using glorious natural herbs and flavours in your seafood dishes, like garlic, thyme, oregano, fennel and rosemary, to highlight the tastes of the sea. Dried herbes de Provence, fragrant with lavender from the hills around Cannes, can be used if you don’t have fresh herbs available, but I would always recommend you use fresh herbs if you can, as the taste will be far superior.
Though we might not enjoy as sunny a climate as the stunning French Riviera, these Mediterranean-inspired dishes can give you that little taste of sunshine. And for those brighter days, they make perfect barbecue dishes, enjoyed al fresco.
• 12 gambas (langoustines or prawns in their shells)
• 2 cloves of garlic
• olive oil
• 2 lemons
• small bunch of parsley
• salt and pepper
Firstly, you’ll need to make a persillade using the garlic and parsley. Start by bashing the garlic with a knife, adding a touch of salt to taste. Pick the leaves from the parsley and add to the garlic. Chop the garlic and parsley together until they begin to form a purée. Set aside.
Cut the lemons in half. Heat a non-stick frying pan and add a splash of oil once the pan is hot. Place the lemon in the pan and let it cook for 4-5 minutes until the inside of the lemon takes on a blackened, caramelised colour.
Meanwhile, season the gambas with salt and pepper. Heat a non-stick frying pan, and once it is hot, add oil and take it to a medium heat before adding the gambas. Cook them for 2-3 minutes on each side. Add a knob of butter, then add the garlic and parsley. Baste the butter over the top of the prawns, covering with the garlic and parsley.
To serve, place the gambas on a plate and pour the juices from the pan over them. Serve with the lemon.
Sea Bass with Fennel
• 4 whole sea bass
• 4 bulbs of fennel for roasting
• 1 bulb of fennel to garnish
• olive oil
• salt and pepper to taste
Pre-heat the oven to 180C/Gas Mark 4. If you have a large, oven-proof, heavy-bottomed frying pan, you can cook both the sea bass and fennel in the pan. If not, you can place the fennel in the oven to roast.
Scale the sea bass, remove the stomach and the gills – you can ask your fishmonger to do this if you prefer. Season the fish all over with salt and pepper. Cut the four bulbs of fennel in half and remove the outer leaves.
Take the additional fennel bulb and slice, almost as you would an onion. Heat the frying pan and add a splash of oil. Place the fennel in the pan. Place the fish in the same pan and cook well on one side for 2-3 minutes to get a nice colour.
Turn, and place the fish in the oven. Depending on the size of the sea bass, cook it for 10-12 minutes, basting as you go.
Once cooked, remove from the oven. You can check the fish is cooked by inserting a needle into the thickest part at the back of the head. If you then put the needle to your lips and it feels warm, that means it’s cooked. Now leave to rest.
To serve, place one sea bass on each plate, and serve with the roasted fennel. Garnish with shavings of raw fennel and a drizzle of olive oil.