I’ve lived in and around Winston-Salem for 35 years, and from the day I arrived as a fresh-faced 20-something, I’ve explored every corner and tried every restaurant and sought out all the specialty shops in a quest to satisfy my food-loving soul.
Or so I thought.
A few years ago, some friends of ours made mention of Sea Products, a hidden gem that has been in business three years longer than I’ve been here, and their recommendation has changed my life. OK, that’s probably a bit overstated, but it has definitely changed my seafood game for the better.
I love stepping into this little shop in the West End of my city. It smells like the ocean in the best possible way and is always amply stocked with fresh seafood—mostly from our own coastline, but sometimes from as far as Canada—and all kinds of accoutrements for whatever preparation you have in mind for your fresh catch. Sea Products throws in a fresh lemon with every seafood purchase, and sells housemade tartar and cocktail sauces, side salads in ready-to-go containers, and fresh breads from a local bakery. They even have a small, curated wine selection, and every bottle pairs with fish. It’s a one-stop shop, and I am a proud supporter of local businesses such as this. The selections are always interesting, to the point that I don’t even bother making a shopping list.
What would it be this day—fresh shrimp, clams or scallops? Pre-made crab or fish cakes? Halibut or grouper? And then something caught my eye from the corner of the case, a fish that I hadn’t seen on previous visits. Black sea bass. The clerk described it as “mild and flaky, similar to snapper but a touch sweeter.”
I am always interested in trying new fish, and thought it made sense to pair the unfamiliar black sea bass with flavors we already knew. OK, I thought, piccata sauce. It’s light enough to let the flavors of the fish shine, and both my husband and I like the balance of brine and tartness, softened by the butter that’s swirled in at the end of cooking. Piccata was the plan, at least, until I opened the fridge. As I shuffled jars to reach the capers, my eyes locked in on a taller jar of pimento-stuffed cocktail olives. Ooh, a martini would be nice right now, I thought.
And then, hmmmm.
I could not help but wonder what would happen if I made the olives an understudy to the usual capers. And because savory olives work so nicely in a martini, what would happen if I substituted gin and vermouth for the white wine in my piccata? Well, this happened!
Technically, the alcohol infusion I’ve used here is what a bartender would call a “reverse martini,” because the ratio of gin to vermouth has been flipped. This seemed the right thing to do, not only because my husband is decidedly not a gin lover, but also for the fact that gin is much higher alcohol by volume than white wine. Dry vermouth, on the other hand, is on par with wine, alcohol-wise, and it would be a better flavor choice to highlight the olives without over-boozing the fish. Finally, my splash of olive juice was far more generous than I’d ever drink in a cocktail (I used a full ounce of it), so a bartender would probably declare the drink infusion to be a “filthy reverse martini.” Filthy indeed.
So, those are the flavors and here comes the technique. If you have ever marveled at the elegance of a butter sauce on fresh seafood, you may find it surprising to know that it is simple to make. The trick is to remove the pan from the heat as soon as the juices are reduced, and to swirl cold-from-the-fridge pats of butter into the sauce, one at a time. This easy technique transforms the otherwise liquid leavings in the pan into a silky, rich sauce.
Come, join me in the kitchen!
2 fillets fresh black sea bass (or other mild, flaky whitefish)
1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. canola or other neutral oil
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (a rich, fruity one is great)
1/2 medium onion, diced (about 1/2 cup)
1 reverse filthy martini* (see note below)
1 heaping tsp. pimentos from a jar
3 Tbsp. completely cold butter (for swirling in at the end)
Small handful of fresh parsley, chopped (for serving)
Lemon wedge (to squeeze at serving time)
Reverse martini ingredients are 1.5 oz. dry or extra-dry vermouth, .5 oz. gin, 1 oz. olive juice, 3 olives. Do not shake or stir the martini with ice, as you would for drinking. Just combine the ingredients in a glass or measuring cup at room temperature. Chop or slice the olives and set them aside.
If you don’t care for gin, swap it for vodka or omit it altogether.