Sea Bass over Spiced Chickpeas with Confit Cherry Tomatoes and Moroccan Pesto by Emma Spitzer
This dish is a real showstopper and it managed to unanimously unite the guest judges on MasterChef, Ping, Luke and Jack (winner and finalists on MasterChef 2014), when I cooked it for them. The chickpeas and the Moroccan pesto, better known in North Africa and the Middle East as chermoula, are very powerful flavours, but somehow manage to complement rather than overpower the soft and delicate nature of the sea bass. I would normally advocate always usingfreshly cooked chickpeas, but with the time constraints of the TV programme, I had no choice but to use canned and I think they work just as well in this dish, plus they strip out one extra process. I practised this dish on family and friends so many times, I think my husband and I must have eaten no less than 15 versions of this dish, but I still love it just as much, especially served with a nice cold glass of Riesling.
4 sea bass fillets
sea salt and freshly ground
olive oil, for shallow-frying
For the chickpeas
250g dried chickpeas, soaked in cold
water overnight, or 2 × 400g cans
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
2 teaspoons ground sumac
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons sweet smoked paprika
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
½ teaspoon sea salt
100ml olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped rosemary leaves
sea salt, if needed
For the Moroccan pesto
6 large handfuls of coriander
4 preserved lemons, halved and flesh
scooped out and discarded
4 garlic cloves, peeled
4cm piece of fresh root ginger, peeled
3 large green chillies, deseeded
1 teaspoon ground cumin
6–8 tablespoons olive oil
For the confit cherry tomatoes
12 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 garlic clove, crushed
freshly ground black pepper
For the chickpeas, if using dried, drain them of their soaking water, rinse and place in a large saucepan. Cover with plenty of fresh cold water and bring to the boil. Cook for around an hour until soft, then drain and leave to steam dry. If using canned, drain and rinse them really well, then set aside.
To make the pesto, roughly chop the coriander, preserved lemon skins, garlic, ginger and chillies and add to a food processor along with the cumin and some salt and pulse a few times until everything is very finely chopped. Then with the motor running, drizzle the olive oil in slowly until you have a loose pesto-like consistency. Transfer to a bowl, cover and leave in the fridge while you prepare the rest of the dish, to allow the flavours to develop.
For the confit tomatoes, preheat the oven to 120°C/100°C fan/Gas Mark ½. Put the tomatoes on a baking tray lined with foil, add all the other confit ingredients and toss together, ensuring that the tomatoes are well coated with the oil and seasonings. Roast for around 1½ hours or until the tomatoes have slightly dehydrated. Remove from the oven and set aside.
Mix all the spices and salt for the chickpeas together. Heat the oil gently in a deep saucepan large enough to hold the chickpeas, and when the oil is warm (you don’t want it hot, otherwise the spices and garlic will burn), add the mixed spices, garlic and rosemary and stir together for a couple of minutes. Then add the chickpeas and cook until everything is nice and hot. Check for seasoning, as this is a good time to add extra cayenne for more of a kick. Remove from the heat and pop on a lid or cover with foil while you cook the fish.
Run your fingers down the flesh side of the sea bass fillets to make sure that all the bones have been removed (a pair of tweezers are handy for removing them if necessary), and if desired, trim the bottom and top of the fillets on the diagonal to make for a neater presentation. Season the sea bass fillets on both sides with salt and black pepper. Heat a large frying pan, or 2 if you can’t fit the fish into one, over a high heat and add a tablespoon of olive oil. When it is smoking, add the fish, skin-side down, and press down gently on the flesh with a spatula to stop it curling. Take care at this point, as the oil will splutter a bit. Turn the heat down very slightly and leave the fish to cook, undisturbed, for 3 minutes. You can tell when the fish is almost cooked by checking the translucency. Turn the fish over carefully and cook on the other side for 1 minute, or a maximum of 2 minutes if they are particularly large fillets. Transfer the fish, flesh-side down, to a plate to rest while you assemble the rest of the dish.
Give the pesto a stir and add a bit more olive oil if needed. Place a few heaped tablespoonfuls of the chickpeas on the plate, 6 cherry tomato halves around the chickpeas and then top with the sea bass, skin-side up, adding a line of pesto over the fish and a drizzle around the plate.
I prefer to use whole spices where possible for the chickpea seasoning. Toast the coriander and cumin seeds in large quantities in a dry frying pan over a medium heat until fragrant, shaking the pan constantly, then grind them with a spice grinder or power blender so that you always have this mix to hand. It’s great with other pulses such as cannellini and borlotti beans, or a lovely addition for pimping up a basic tomato sauce.