By Dinos Kiousis
One of the tastiest fish in the Aegean, the striped sea bream (“mourmoura” or “vasilopsaro” in Greek) is gray-silver in color with a dark spine, as well as 12-15 thin vertical stripes along its sides that has given it the nickname of sea tiger.
It swims in schools close to shore, no deeper than 50 meters, preferring sandy depths or dark seaweed outcrops.
Unfortunately for the fish, those are precisely the depths targeted by fishing trawlers, so there aren’t many to be found in fish markets anymore.
The striped sea bream feeds on mollusks and worms, which it finds by digging in sand or mud. It reproduces in the spring and summer at the age of 2 years, and grows to lengths of 14 cm, weighing up to 800 grams. If it were allowed to live to a ripe old age, it could reach half a meter in length and weigh up to 4 kilos. Its flesh is white, compact and delicious.
Fish farm sea breams from Italy and elsewhere are to be found throughout the year in Greece at about 16-18 euros per kilo. You may find some Greek catches at about 25 euros a kilo, but smaller ones (just as rare) go for around 5 euros per kilo.
The flesh is so tasty it’s a shame to do anything but grill it. But imported striped sea bream from fish farms, as well as smaller ones caught in nets, can be cooked in a number of different ways.
Frying fish calls for care. The secret to frying with batter or flour is to “surprise” the fish so it doesn’t absorb too much oil.
The oil should be hot (180-190C) but no more or it will burn the fish.
If you have no kitchen thermometer, put your hand slightly above the surface of the oil, being careful not to touch it. If it feels hot, put a cube of bread or a little flour into the oil; if it starts to sizzle at once and change color, the oil is hot enough.
Marbre en tain d’alu
Ingredients (serves 4)
1.5 kg striped sea bream (2 large or 4 small), scaled and gutted
3 large sticks of celery, well washed, for each fish
3 tbsp white wine for each fish
1 peeled garlic clove for each fish
3 tsp lemon juice for each fish
2 tsp olive oil for each fish
1 fresh basil leaf for each fish
1 small sprig fresh rosemary or a little dried crushed herb for each fish
Salt and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 200C. Cut a piece of aluminum baking foil for each fish, big enough to wrap it up completely.
Season the fish, wind a celery stick around each one and lay on the aluminum sheets. If using basil or rosemary, place it in the fish’s belly. Lift up the edges of the foil to keep the juices from escaping, and pour the wine, oil and lemon over each fish. Add the garlic cloves and wrap each fish carefully and loosely taking care not to tear the foil. Place them in a baking dish and bake in the oven for about 12-16 minutes, depending on the size. A 700-800 gr fish will need about 15 minutes. To be certain, gently open the foil to see if the flesh has separated from the spine. If so, the fish is ready. Serve with boiled vegetables.
Striped sea bream with sweet pepper & batter
Ingredients (serves 4)
About 1.2 kg small striped sea bream (about 12-16), scaled and gutted
1 tbsp sweet red pepper powder
Olive oil for frying
For the batter:
400 g soft wheat flour
100 g breadcrumbs
2 egg whites
1 tsp dried, crushed rosemary
About 500 ml of water
Wash the fish well, season and sprinkle with pepper inside the gut and head.
For the batter, whisk the egg whites for about a minute, then, mixing continually, add the rosemary, breadcrumbs and flour and water gradually until you have a smooth paste the consistency of diluted honey. Put as much oil into a frying pan as needed to half cover the fish and heat. As soon as the oil reaches the desired temperature, lower the heat to medium and, holding each fish by the tip of the tail, dip it into the batter and then into the frying pan. Fry for just over two minutes on each side, or until the batter is golden. Place the fried fish onto absorbent paper on a platter. Before frying the next lot of fish, add a splash of oil to the pan. Serve with tomato salad.