Black Sea Bass with Dirty Martini Butter Sauce

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!

Black Sea Bass with Dirty Martini Butter Sauce

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.

Two olives in a martini is said to be bad luck. One wasn’t enough, I went with three! 😉

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!


Ingredients

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)


*Notes

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.


Instructions




My Favorite Martini

One might look with suspicion at the photos on my smartphone, especially if they didn’t know my backstory or my penchant for showing, rather than telling, what is happening in my life. As I was scrolling my photo roll the other day—looking for a random image of what, I don’t remember—I noticed that I frequently snapped images of mainly three things: bread dough, cats and martinis. Alrighty, then.

Cats have been part of my world for as long as I can remember, and apparently even longer, as I even have a photograph of myself as an infant, with a black and white cat right next to me—a guardian angel, no doubt. Many cats have graced me with their presence and their trust over my lifetime, and I am fascinated by their expressions, their agility and their overall adorableness. I try in vain to capture their essence.

Bread dough has played a major role in my recent life as well, especially after the “birth” of my sourdough starter in 2016. I am fascinated by the development of dough, and humbled that I can be part of the magic that happens in it. I make a lot of bread and I take a lot of pictures of that process.

So what about martinis, and where do they fit in as a most-photographed item? I realized, upon closer inspection, that most of my martini pictures were taken right around 4:30 p.m., the time of day I would regularly wish my Aunt Joy a happy “Happy Hour” across the miles that separate us. However did we manage before texting?

An afternoon martini helped me navigate some of the madness during our kitchen remodel.
Gotta love that blue tape on the door.

In previous years, my happy hour libation would have been a simple glass of wine, and occasionally enjoyed at a wine bar with a girlfriend. But COVID changed everything, and with so much time on my hands for experimenting, the cocktail has had a real renaissance moment at my house. I have dabbled in mixology, trying out different spirits and techniques—even investing in the correct glassware—and my new favorite is definitely the martini. It is simple, but refined. It goes down easy, but not too easy.

I suppose my grandmother had a little something to do with martinis being my chosen cocktail, though I do not remember her ever making them as I do today—gin, shaken with ice and vermouth, sprinkled with bitters and poured into a chilled coupe glass with a skewered, lemon peel-stuffed olive. For her happy hour, Gram simply poured her martini ingredients over ice in a short glass. She made hers with vodka, and always “dirty” with a little bit of briny olive juice, and I don’t remember whether she added vermouth. Maybe if she found it on sale.

The first time I remember sharing a martini with Gram was in Spring 1992 in central Florida, where she and my grandpa retreated each year to escape the brutal upstate New York winters. My week there marked the first time I felt like an adult in my relationship with Gram, but that had nothing to do with the cocktail.

My grandpa had just passed away after a lengthy stay in the hospital, and though my mother had been there to say goodbye, and one of her sisters had stayed a bit longer to spend precious final moments and offer support to Gram, neither was able to stay indefinitely, and Gram was alone when her husband died. Even their snowbird “cronies,” as she called them, had already migrated back to their homes up north. I was living in North Carolina at the time, and I felt compelled, as the geographically nearest relative, to make the 10-hour drive (which is practically nothing, when you’re in your 20s) to be with her. She appreciated my presence, but for most of my visit it seemed clear she did not need it.

We traipsed around town for a few days as if all was normal, visiting the farmers’ market, where we bought fresh tomatoes and cucumbers for all the salads we ate. She taught me how to use the flat edge of a paring knife to loosen the tomato skin for easier peeling, and I still do it that way today. We chatted about my blossoming relationship with my boyfriend at the time, and she beamed with pride as I told stories about my job on the radio. We shared afternoon martinis, including on the day the funeral director dropped by the house to deliver my grandfather’s ashes, and I was astonished that she did not collapse in grief. Then, on the day before I was scheduled to drive home, Gram pulled off the main drag into a gas station lot and I realized the reason for my visit.

“Oops, you’ve stopped on the full-service side, Gram,” I told her, recalling how careful she had always been—and urged me to be—to pinch pennies by clipping coupons, canning her own pickles, stretching out leftovers and stitching handmade clothes. There was no way, I figured, that she intended to pay extra for an attendant to fill her tank. And then she shocked me by explaining that Grandpa had always taken care of gassing up the car and she supposed she’d have to get used to paying more now that he was gone. That’s when I realized that there was an important reason for me to be there. Finally, after so many years of the being the student, I had a chance to teach something new to the best teacher I ever had.

“OK, pull to the other side and step out of the car with me. Today I am going to teach you how to pump gas, Gram.” She was a grateful student.

Would she have appreciated this lesson in martini making? Of course! She’d remark with a lilted voice at how fancy and elegant my version of a martini is, as if I were making a cocktail for the Queen of England (also a martini maven). She would even pretend to hold the stem of a coupe glass very gingerly, with her pinky finger extended.

And then she’d grab a juice glass and pour her own favorite martini, the vodka version, straight over ice.


This is my favorite martini, with orange bitters and occasionally a strip of organic lemon peel.

Ingredients

  • 2 oz. Fords gin
  • 0.5 oz. Dolin dry vermouth
  • 2 quick shakes Regan’s orange bitters
  • A lemon peel-stuffed olive to garnish
  • Optional strip of organic lemon peel, if you’re feeling extra fancy (or if they’re on sale)

Instructions

First things first, chill down your cocktail glass. Some people like to keep them in the freezer, but I prefer to chill only the bowl of the glass by filling it with ice cubes and a splash of water. Give it a spin with your cocktail pick. Why? It is a law of physics that the ice-in-motion will chill the glass faster than the ice just sitting there.

Next, measure the gin and vermouth into a cocktail shaker, and give it two quick shakes of orange bitters. This may seem unusual, but the bitters play very nicely with my preferred gin and makes the drink feel complete.

Now, cap the shaker and give it a good shaking. Some people prefer to stir a martini to prevent over-diluting it, but I generally prefer to shake it and I have found that using a generous scoop of ice chills it down very quickly, also preventing over-dilution. Don’t shake it violently, just enough to mix the ingredients completely. 20 seconds should do it.

Pour the shaken martini into the chilled glass. I like chilling it with ice because the stem of the glass doesn’t get frosty or slippery from the freezer.

Dump the ice that has been chilling your glass (be sure to let all the water fall out), and strain your beautiful martini right into it. Skewer the olive and drop it into the glass.

Repeat as desired.



Coq au Vermouth

Excuse me, where is the umbrella?

I spent two years in French class during high school, and that is pretty much all I remember how to ask—“excusez-moi, où est le parapluie?” I suppose it is a question that would have been essential had I become a world traveler (I didn’t), and in fact it was a common question asked among my fellow French club members when we took our senior trip to Quebec City, Canada—they don’t speak much English there, in case you didn’t know. It rained the entire three-day weekend, but it was still a glorious visit to a city rich with history and speckled with exquisite, copper-roofed buildings.

Spanish would undoubtedly have been a more useful class for me, given the increase of Spanish-speaking people in the U.S. since I graduated all those years ago. But there was something sooo sexy about the French spoken word, and well, my best friend signed up for French so I did, too. Our teacher was cool and we got to choose our own names for the class, which was good because there wasn’t a name on the list that was a literal translation for Terrie. My friend Debbie became Christine, pronounced CREE-steen, my friend Christine became Danielle and yours truly selected the name Jacqueline, which was fun to say—zhah-KLEEN, like the French fashion designer who steals Nigel’s dream job in The Devil Wears Prada.

French class was always lively, and we were encouraged to play up the accent and the nasal sound as much as possible. We went through round after round of language exercises, covering the French words for common places, including the bookstore (la librairie) and the library (la bibliothèque) and reciting all the various tenses of the verb words, and for every kind of individual and group instance. For example: for the verb “go,” we would cycle through the French words that meant, “I go, you go, he goes, she goes, we go and they go.” Round and round we went, and after all that repetitious recitation, all I remember how to say is “where is the umbrella?”

Anyway, for me, there is still a lot of mystery and intrigue associated with the French language, and I learned during my short time working in the Pinch of Thyme catering kitchen that if you want people to swoon over food, call it something French! As luck would have it, I do at least remember some of the French words for certain foods, including poulet (chicken), champignons (mushrooms) and carottes (carrots, obviously). I was excited to find this recipe in my most recent digital edition of Imbibe magazine because I have used splashes of vermouth in a few dishes and found it more complex and vibrant than wine, which would traditionally be used for braising chicken in the classic coq au vin. But this recipe was more than a splash, it was a generous amount in a very French-technique kind of recipe.

I could not resist turning this into a Sunday Supper meal, with a side of buttered red bliss potatoes and sauteed spinach, and it was—how shall I say—très délicieux!

This dish was rich and succulent, exactly as it should be. The chicken thighs remained tender and moist.

A word or few about vermouth…

I have known about vermouth for decades, but it has only been the past couple of years that I have become more closely acquainted with it, and today I almost always have a bottle open in the fridge for an end-of-day gin martini. Vermouth is a fortified wine, which means other alcohol has been added to grapes during fermentation, and that results in higher alcohol by volume than typical wine. Any variety of botanical ingredients are thrown into the process as well, including herbs, bitter ingredients, bark, roots and spices. Vermouth may be red or white, dry or sweet or really sweet, depending on its origin and method, and it is commonly used as an ingredient for classic cocktails, including martinis and Manhattans. Vermouth, on its own, is also a popular apéritif (pre-dinner drink) in Spain, Italy, France and my house.

In a literal French-to-English translation, coq au vermouth would demand use of a rooster, but it is not every day that you’d find such a creature in your local market. Large hen thighs is what I used for the recipe, and it was tender, flavorful and oh so fancy. Don’t be intimidated, though, because despite all of the foreign language I’ve been throwing around, this was a very simple dish to make. All you need is a cast iron skillet, chicken thighs, bacon, mushrooms and mirepoix—oops, another French word that is simply a mix of carrots, onions and celery. All that, plus a decent amount of dry white vermouth. Don’t worry, vermouth is easy to find, wherever you might buy wine. To keep the recipe true to its origin, choose a brand from France. I used Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry, dry, in the green bottle. 😊

This is one of my go-to vermouth brands for Gibson cocktails:
2 oz. dry gin, 1/2 oz. dry vermouth, shaken or stirred with ice, strained into a cocktail glass and served with a pickled pearl onion.

Inspired by Coq au Vermouth – Imbibe Magazine

Ingredients

3 slices bacon, cut into thin pieces

4 large, free-range chicken thighs (bone-in and skin-on)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 medium onion, sliced or diced

2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into thick diagonal slices

2 stalks celery, cleaned, ribs removed and diced

3 cloves garlic, smashed and sliced

About 1 cup cremini mushrooms, cleaned and cut into quarters

1/2 cup dry vermouth (extra dry would be fine, also)

1/4 cup low-sodium vegetable broth

2 fresh sprigs of thyme

2 Tbsp. cold butter

Juice of 1/2 fresh lemon


Instructions

Let’s run through it in pictures first, and if you keep scrolling, you’ll find the instructions spelled out (in English), and I’ll also include a downloadable PDF for your recipe files.


  1. Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Season the chicken thighs liberally with salt and pepper. Cook the bacon until the fat is rendered and the edges begin to crisp. Transfer the pieces to a paper-towel lined dish, keeping all the bacon grease in the skillet. Arrange the chicken thighs, skin side down, into the skillet. Cook them until the skin is crispy and golden, then turn the pieces and cook the other side about two minutes.
  2. Transfer the thighs to a plate and cover loosely with foil to keep them warm. Add the mirepoix (carrots, onions and celery) to the fond (pan drippings) in the skillet. Cook over medium heat until the vegetables begin to soften. Add the garlic and mushrooms, tossing with the other vegetables until slightly browned. Pour in the vermouth and vegetable broth, and simmer for about two minutes.
  3. Return the chicken thighs to the skillet, skin side up. Sprinkle the bacon pieces over the top and lay the whole thyme sprigs in a criss-cross fashion over the combination. Reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet tightly and simmer about 30 minutes.
  4. Remove and discard the thyme sprigs. Transfer the chicken thighs to a plate. Add the cold butter and lemon juice to the simmered vegetable mixture and stir until it is a rich, luscious sauce. Just before plating, place the thighs, skin side down, into the skillet to drench them in the sauce. Plate the chicken, then spoon the simmered vegetable mixture (a.k.a. mélange) over the thighs.
I love when an elegant dish is this simple!