Pastis, an anise-flavored liqueur, is two-faced. It smells positively noxious out of the bottle, and yet tastes so absolutely subtle in cooking that if it were a person, it would have a split personality. Who knew that anything so bold out of a bottle could by so shy in a pan?
I first discovered Pastis on the jovial breath of my adoring grandmother, Mémé, and have been trying to force myself to like it ever since. To no avail. But it has absolutely always been around in my house, my mother having been born in Marseilles, in the heart of Pastis-drinking country. Thus, when I was at her house for the holidays, and our family descended upon us from France once again bearing bottles of duty-free Pastis, I had no choice but to give it a shot.
What I found was that Pastis, distilled from star anise and licorice root and bottled with sugar, is the perfect Secret Ingredient. Like chocolate in mole, or nutmeg in béchamel, it is an enhancer that becomes strangely elusive and unidentifiable once cooked. Intensely anise-flavored as an aperitif, it adds a slightly fennel-ish hue to the flavor, and it lingers as a freshness more exotic than ubiquitous lemon zest. It is the je ne sais quoi that, with just a splash, makes a dish instantly more profound and flavorful.
For this Pastis-Glazed Fish with Fennel Slaw, I make a simple syrup of sugar, water, and Pastis. I enrobe a piece of buttery sea bass in a thick blanket of the pastis, and broil it until the glaze bubbles and the edges of the fish burnish. It is subtle, special, and basically no effort. I serve it with a fresh fennel slaw, lightened and brightened with lemon. The combination is super fresh and sophisticated.
Pastis-Glazed Fish with Fennel Slaw
- 1/2 cup pastis
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 6-ounce filets of Chilean sea bass (preferably from a sustainable source)
- 1 fennel, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons fennel fronds, chopped
- 2 tablespoons dill, chopped
- Zest and juice of 1 lemon
- 1/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
Preheat your broiler.
In a small saucepan, simmer the pastis, water, and sugar together until the sugar melts and the mixture is translucent. Leave aside to cool and thicken.
Pat the fish dry and season with salt and pepper. Rub the underside and sides of the filet, but not the top, or the glaze will slide off, with a touch of olive oil. Place the fish on a baking sheet lined with a Silpat or parchment. Spoon the glaze over the top of the fish, painting it all over the surface. It will run off a bit, so just paint more on top of it.
Place the fish under the broiler until the glaze begins to caramelize and the fish is flaky, 5 to 8 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the fennel slaw by combining the fennel, fennel fronds, dill, lemon juice, lemon zest, and olive oil with salt and pepper. Toss to combine.
Divide the fennel slaw between two plates. Carefully perch a piece of fish on top of each pile (the glaze on top is very hot). Serve right away.