Pan-Seared Branzino with Orange-Fennel Salad

I love making this for a weeknight dinner – everything comes together in under half an hour which is roughly, given my current workload, is how long I have to make dinner these days. I also hear this is roughly how long busy moms have before their kids have a pre-dinner meltdown. I can’t speak for that first-hand, but if this recipe helps a busy mom out, terrific. In the summer, I swap in ripe peaches or nectarines in place of oranges and add mint in addition to parsley. I’ve also made this with crushed pistachios in the past, but they weren’t on hand when this picture was taken.

If you want to add some pistachios to the mix, by all means, go ahead. I’ve tried using other nuts in their place, and there’s just something about pistachios that really complement the citrus (fruit) flavors in the salad.

For the seasoning blend, nothing beats fennel pollen, however it is expensive and difficult to find. Andrew saw it at a store, and remembering how I waxed poetic about it, got me two tiny jars. Flavor wise – nothing beats it; you’ll want to mix it into everything: whipped ricotta, honey, a tiny pinch with your scrambled eggs. It lends this intoxicating herbal-floral note that’s unlike anything else. Otherwise, if fennel pollen proves elusive (or seemingly not worth the expense) just take some fennel seed, toast it, and crush it – the results are pretty phenomenal as well. Many chefs will tell you that toasting our own spices is one really simple way to elevate your dishes to restaurant quality, and if you thought they were just being coy with you, heed their advice. Taking five extra minutes to toast and crush the spices is well worth it, I think, if it takes your dish from three to four stars. That extra fourth star equals five extra minutes of your time – think about it.

1 teaspoon fennel pollen or 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper, plus more as needed
1 large orange
2 fennel bulbs, shaved
2 cups mixed baby salad greens, preferably a mix from a greenmarket that has mustard greens, arugula, kale, various lettuces
A small handful of fresh, flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 branzini (about 1 pound each), filleted
3 tablespoons grapeseed oil, or other neutral oil
2 teaspoons white wine or sherry vinegar or to taste
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon maple syrup
Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon

1. Heat the oven to 400[dg]F; position the rack in the middle. If using fennel pollen, combine the fennel pollen with 2 teaspoons of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper in a small bowl and set aside. If using fennel seeds (a cheaper, and easier to find option), in a small pan set over low heat, toast the fennel seeds until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat, and using a mortar and pestle, finely grind. Combine the fennel with 2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper and set aside.

2. Supreme the orange (cut out its segments) by trimming off the top and bottom of the fruit with a paring knife. Set the fruit on one end, and carefully cut the skin from its flesh, beginning at the top and following down the curve of the fruit. Carefully cut out each section of the fruit by inserting the blade of the knife between the flesh and the membrane on both sides. The wedges should come out easily, leaving only the membranes intact. Set the segments aside. Squeeze out what remains of the orange into a small bowl. Reserve the juice and discard whatever is left of the orange.

3. In a large mixing bowl, toss the shaved fennel, greens, parsley leaves, and reserved orange slices. Set aside.

4. Heat oil in a large ovenproof nonstick sauté pan set over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Pat the fish dry with paper towels and season both sides of the fillet with the reserved fennel seasoning mixture. Place fillets, skin side down, and sear for about 3 minutes. Transfer the pan to the oven until the fish is no longer opaque and flaky, about 4 minutes. Remove from the oven and divide between 2 plates. You may need to cook your fish in 2 batches, depending on the size of the pan; do not overcrowd the pan.

5. While the fish is in the oven, add vinegar to the orange juice and season with a few pinches of salt. Stir and let sit for 2 minutes. Whisk in olive oil and maple syrup and season to taste with pepper. Add the vinaigrette to the salad and toss to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed. Serve the branzino alongside the fennel salad. Sprinkle with flaky sea salt, if you like.

Serves 2 to 4 (we tend to eat 2 filets each with a large salad)

© 2023 Olga Massov