Red mullet is prized in France, as much for its brisk, almost gamey, taste as for its brilliant skin. It?s a small fish, sometimes tiny, so more than one may be needed per person. Any small whole fish, particularly bream, can be used instead.  The regional twist comes with local oils: olive oil in the south, or walnut or hazelnut oil further north. Vinegars range from artisan brews using red or white wine, or perhaps Champagne, to the cider vinegar that has long been a part of fish dishes in Normandy and Brittany. For frying, olive or vegetable oil is best as most nut oils scorch easily. With its pink skin and bright tomato garnish, this is one of the prettiest fish dishes I know!  As an accompaniment you cannot do better than a salad of fresh greens or a lightly cooked vegetable such as green beans.

Serves 4

  • 4 red mullet (about 10 ounces/280 grams each), cleaned and scaled
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
  • 3 tablespoons/45 milliliters/1 1/2 fluid ounces olive or vegetable oil

Tomato vinaigrette

  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • Salt and pepper
  • 6 tablespoons/90 milliliters/3 fluid ounces olive, walnut, or hazelnut oil
  • 3 tomatoes (about 1 pound/450 grams total), peeled, seeded, and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives

For the vinaigrette, whisk the vinegar with salt and pepper in a small bowl until the salt dissolves. Gradually add the oil, whisking constantly so the dressing emulsifies and thickens lightly. Stir in the tomatoes and chives, taste, and adjust the seasoning. The dressing can be prepared an hour or so in advance.

Rinse and dry the fish, handling them as lightly as possible. Trim off the fins and cut the tails in a ‘V’. Coat them with seasoned flour, patting off the excess with your hands. Heat the oil in a large frying pan, add the fish, backs towards you and heads facing to the left (this ensures their best side is upwards for serving). Sauté them over medium heat until lightly browned, 4 to 5 minutes. Turn and brown the other side, 3 to 4 minutes longer, depending on size. They should just flake easily when tested with a fork. Transfer the fish to warm serving plates, placing them with heads to the left and stomach nearest the diner so the flesh is easy to lift from the bones. Stir the dressing again briefly, spoon the cool vinaigrette over the hot fish as a contrast, and serve at once.

photo by France Ruffenach
Excerpted from THE COUNTRY COOKING OF FRANCE
by Anne Willan, Chronicle Books, 2007.