THE CHEF: MELISSA RODRIGUEZ
Her restaurants: Mel’s, in New York City; Al Coro and Discolo, both opening soon, also in Manhattan
What she is known for: Italian cuisine with finesse. Technical mastery at the service of inviting flavor combinations.
“I LOVE CHALLENGES”, said Chef Melissa Rodriguez. At her restaurant Mel’s, which opened in Manhattan in March, she had a choice: cooking on gas or on fire. “I chose fire because I’d never done it before and I thought it would be fun to learn,” she said playfully.
She has accepted the challenge and has developed her own style. “When something grilled tastes better, it usually works best when less is done,” she said. As simple as it may be, Mrs. Rodriguez’s latest Slow Food Fast recipe delivers real depth of flavor, plus some quiet flourishes. “We didn’t just say, let’s do a whole grilled branzino,” said the chef. “We tested a lot of fish.”
The branzino gets a fragrant rub of chopped candied lemon and fennel seeds. Grilling on the bone, with head and tail intact, helps protect against overcooking. Just leave the fish undisturbed on the oiled grid until it releases on its own. The accompanying mustarda of fresh lemon and fennel comes together in minutes and plays beautifully with that delicious rub on the fish. “Of all the dishes at Mel’s, this definitely gets the strongest response,” says Ms. Rodriguez. “People really love it.”
The branzino gets a fragrant rub of chopped candied lemon and fennel seeds. The accompanying mustarda of fresh lemon and fennel comes together in minutes and plays beautifully with that delicious rub on the fish.
- 2 whole branzino, stripped and cleaned, with head and tail intact
- 5 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- Zest of 2 preserved lemons, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
- Kosher salt
- 1 small fennel bulb, finely chopped
- 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
- 4 fresh lemons, halved and seeded
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- Preheat a grill to medium-high and make sure the rack is clean. Rub the fish all over with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, finely chopped candied lemon zest and fennel seeds. Season the fish cavity and the outside with salt and set aside.
- Make the mostarda: Swirl 3 tablespoons oil in a medium, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Stir in chopped fennel and onions and cook until edges begin to caramelize, about 5 minutes. Cut 8 thin slices from the cut sides of fresh lemon halves and then finely chop the lemon slices. Stir the chopped fresh lemon into the fennel-onion sauté. Add garlic and season with salt. Sauté until flavors meld and vegetables soften, about 4 minutes more. Set mostarda aside.
- When the grill is hot, brush the grid with olive oil. Place the fish on the hot grid and cook undisturbed until the fish comes free from the grid and the tip of a thin knife inserted into the thickest part of the fish is warm to the touch, about 8 minutes per side. While the fish is grilling, place the remaining lemon halves, cut side down, on the hot grill and cook until blackened, about 2 minutes.
- Finish the fish with a drizzle of raw olive oil. Serve with lemon-fennel mostarda and grilled lemon halves.
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