As you can imagine, the Branzino here in the Venice area are plentiful and fresher than fresh...and so much more affordable than in the United States! Branzino is definitely becoming more widely available, at least in Michigan, so if you happen to know of a place that carries really fresh whole branzino (sea bass), I hope you'll give this recipe a try. Branzino is a really mild fish that has an almost sweet flavor to it. It's a great fish for the whole family, even those who might not always love fish. The great part about this recipe is that there is no wasted fish. First, you'll cook the fish, then remove the meat and make a delicious broth with the bones and scraps. If you're a little bit skiddish about working with whole fish, just see if you can get some assistance from the fisherman in the family. I was very glad to have Michael do the cleaning of the fish for me since he is exceptionally thorough and quick and confident. I, on the other hand, don't do such a great job when it comes to that sort of thing. I think I'll keep him around. Not to worry though, I'll walk you through the steps in case this is your first experience with a whole fish. By the end of this post you will know how to select a fresh fish, how to scale and gut a whole Branzino, how to make a fish broth, and of course- how to prepare Risotto with Branzino, which are all great techniques to have some familiarity with.
Preparing this Risotto with Branzino is not difficult, it just takes a little bit of time. Believe me, it is worth the wait. I really didn't know if I would like it very much. I like branzino, but I thought maybe the broth would make the risotto taste too fishy for my taste. Not at all. The trick is to use really fresh fish, and you won't have to worry about the fishiness. The resulting broth has a subtle flavor to it that makes for a wonderful, creamy risotto that is not to be missed. The other nice thing is that one decent sized fish will go a long way when it comes to serving. This recipe serves 4 (large, main course servings), or 6-8 as a starter or side. In my opinion, just toss together a nice salad and serve a good loaf of bread alongside the risotto and you're all set.
Tips for Buying a Fresh Whole Fish~
1. Smell it. Fresh fish do not smell like fish. They should smell like the sea- sort of the smell of briny water. If it smells fishy, it is not fresh and you should not buy it.
2. Look at the eyes. The eyes should be clear and bright, not dull and cloudy. They should also look a little bit bulged.
3. Look at the skin/scales. The surface of the fish should feel firm when pressed, and look shiny, bright, and metallic. If it looks patchy, dull, or discolored, it has seen better days.
4. Check the gills. Gills of a freshly caught fish are bright red and wet-looking, not dark burgundy red or dry or slimy.
...In other words, it should look like it is alive.
How to Scale and Gut a Whole Branzino~
Here is a video that shows how to quickly scale and gut a branzino for cooking whole. In the video, he uses kitchen shears, which may be appealing for those who are not comfortable digging in with a sharp knife. Either way works fine, just do what you're comfortable with.