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Black Bass With Sicilian-Style Pesto

From Urban Italian: Simple Recipes and True Stories from a Life in Food (Bloomsbury USA, 2008)

For years, I thought Sicilian Pesto was some weird, made-up American sun-dried-tomato abomination. It wasn’t until my first trip to Sicily that I discovered that pesto alla Siciliano was actually Italian–and more to the point, that there was a reason to eat it, I did some research, diving into old Sicilian cookbooks, and I found a handful of recipes, all using the tender leaves at the heart of celery as a key ingredient.

Black bass is my favorite fish for steaming, because it’s so delicate and flakes perfectly, but if you can’t find it, you can always substitute another flaky white fish–cod or halibut, for example.

TIMING : Superquick; about 15 minutes

Black Bass With Sicilian-Style Pesto

Serves 4

For the bass:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 boneless black bass fillets (about 2 pounds total)
1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon each of lemon zest and orange zest (3 passes of the microplane)
2 scallions, whites only, chopped very fine
1/4 cup white vermouth or white wine
1 tablespoon butter

For the pesto:
3/4 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 clove garlic, peeled
1/2 cup sliced blanched almonds
1/2 cup fresh basil (about 15 leaves), chopped
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
1/2 cup celery leaf, chopped

TO PREPARE THE BASS:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375°.
  2. Pour the olive oil into a baking dish.
  3. Using a sharp knife, make 4 shallow diagonal incisions in the skin side of each fillet. (This keeps the fish from curling up and getting tough.) Season the fillets with salt, pepper, oregano, and the lemon and orange zest and shake the scallions over the top. Lay them in the baking dish skin-side up.
  4. Pour the vermouth or wine over the fish.
  5. Break up the butter with your fingers and place little bits across the fish.
  6. Bake the fish, uncovered, until the flesh turns just white and is semi-firm to the touch, about 5 to 8 minutes. When you cut into the fish, the center should be just opaque.

TO PREPARE THE PESTO:

  1. Drain the sun-dried tomatoes and put them in the blender with the olive oil, garlic, almonds, and 1 cup of hot tap water. Blend on high until the ingredients have combined into a chunky sauce, about 1 minute.

TO FINISH THE DISH:

  1. Remove the fish from the baking dish to a plate but do not discard the juices in the bottom of the pan.
  2. Add half the pesto to the juices in the baking dish and mix together over low heat until everything is combined. Add the chopped basil, parsley, and celery leaf, and mix to combine all the ingredients. If the pesto seems too thick for your taste, adjust the consistency by adding a little more hot tap water.
  3. Spoon a portion of the pesto onto the bottom of each serving plate and place a fish fillet on top. Drizzle more extra-virgin olive oil over the top. Serve immediately.

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