Sea Bass Poached with Tomatoes and Pesto

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Prep Time: 25 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Servings: 4

It may sound extravagant, but poaching fish fillets slowly in olive oil is an excellent way to ensure you don’t overcook the fish. Don’t worry about oiliness, either. The flesh, which cooks to a toothsome tenderness, is infused with the flavor of the oil but does not absorb the oil itself. During summer, add cherry tomatoes, such as golden orange Sungold and yellow pear tomatoes, to the hot oil; they lend color and some sweet-tart juices.


  • For the pesto:
  • 1 cup lightly packed fresh basil, cilantro or flat-leaf parsley leaves or a combination, plus coarsely chopped herb(s) of choice for garnish
  • 1 tsp. grated lemon zest
  • 1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 sea bass fillets, each 4 to 6 oz.
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • Extra-virgin olive oil for poaching
  • 1 cup red or golden orange cherry tomatoes or yellow pear tomatoes, or a combination, halved


To make the pesto, tear or coarsely chop any large herb leaves. In a blender or food processor, combine the herb leaves, lemon zest, lemon juice and olive oil. Process until the herbs are very finely chopped and the pesto is smooth but still has some texture. Stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the container or work bowl as needed. Set aside.

Season the fish on both sides with the salt. Arrange the fillets, skin side down, in a fry pan large enough to hold the fish in a single layer without crowding. (You will need a 12-inch or larger pan; otherwise, cook the fish in 2 batches or in 2 pans.) Pour enough olive oil into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the fillets. Scatter the tomatoes in the oil.

Place the pan over medium-low heat and cook until the fish begins to turn white around the edges, 2 to 3 minutes. Spoon some of the poaching oil over the fillets and continue to cook, basting often, until the fish is opaque throughout, 10 to 15 minutes more.

Using a slotted spatula, gently lift the fillets from the oil bath and transfer to a platter or individual plates. Scatter the tomato halves over and around the fish. Top each fillet with a few spoonfuls of the pesto, and scatter the chopped herb(s) on and around the fish. Serve immediately. Serves 4

Budget saver: There’s no need to waste all of the good olive oil used here for poaching. Let the oil cool, put it in a container, label it “oil for poaching” and store in the refrigerator. Use it a couple more times for poaching fish.

Fresh take: In the winter, you can make the pesto with parsley, and scatter thin kumquat slices and rosemary sprigs in the oil in place of the tomatoes.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Good Food to Share, by Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan (Weldon Owen, Inc., 2010).

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