I go to the fishmongers with an open mind. No shopping list, not even the vaguest of plans. I decide what to cook purely by what looks good on the ice. Mussels have been very fine of late. Tiny, thin-shelled, as sweet as a nut. They will be perfect steamed, chilled and in a winter salad with segments of citrus and shavings of jerusalem artichokes, icy crisp. Some will find their way into the filling of a pie.
You need to ask where all your fish comes from nowadays, but especially so with prawns – they are too often unsustainable. When I find some whose provenance I feel comfortable with, they will be cooked in the shell for tearing apart with our hands, or peeled and minced for a fishcake with fresh chillies, fish sauce and coriander. I’m not into creamy French sauces, but if I was, these would be the ones I would choose to go with my expensive sole.
There have been quite a few fish pies on the kitchen table this winter. Deep ones, with a creamy sauce, chunks of pearl-white haddock and a handful of prawns or mussels under the crust. I often buy the fishmonger’s own pie mix – a muddle of fish that changes by the day. The variety depends on what is plentiful and in good condition, but it is an economical answer to what can be an expensive supper. Sometimes I will cover the fish and its sauce with pastry, other times it’s a deep layer of mashed maris pipers. Right now, with bread to use up, it is a thick layer of crumbs freckled with lemon zest and dill. Whichever route you take, fish pie is always a lot of work – the fish, the sauce, the top – and endless, endless washing up, but somehow always worth it. Comfort food of the finest order.
When I am short of time, I have taken to cooking fish steaks with a hot, sweet miso dressing. It’s a handful of ingredients stirred together then baked till the glaze is golden and sticky. There are few easier ways to cook a piece of fish.
I have never lived far from a fishmonger (they are on my wish list for estate agents) and I am not sure I ever want to. More than ever, it is a case of use them or lose them, and I’m happy that so many are stocking other fish-related shopping too, from sushi ginger and wasabi to lemons and olive oil. It is particularly worth looking online at the moment for those that deliver spanking fresh fish to the door.
Mussel and fennel salad
Jerusalem artichokes are always happy in the company of scallops and prawns, but they work with the much cheaper mussel too. I have added cooked mussels and a ladle of mussel cooking liquor to artichoke soup before now, but I am always after new winter salads and the artichoke has a delightfully crisp sweetness when used raw. I use a vegetable peeler to take fine shavings from it rather than a knife.
Serves 3 as a light meal
jerusalem artichokes 2
winter salad leaves 4 handfuls
capers 2 tsp
olive oil 4 tbsp
dill a handful
Scrub and check the mussels. Discard any with cracked shells or that fail to close when lightly tapped on the side of the sink. Put them in a deep pan over a high heat, pour in a small glass of water, cover tightly with a lid and bring to the boil. Let the mussels cook for a minute or two then remove from the heat as soon as their shells have opened.
Lift the mussels out of the pan, remove from their shells and set aside. Cut the peel from the grapefruit with a sharp knife, taking care to remove all traces of white pith. It is worth taking your time over this. Save all the juice you can.
Finely slice the fennel – the thinner each slice the better – and add to the grapefruit. Scrub the artichokes then remove shavings from them with a vegetable peeler. Toss them with the fennel and grapefruit.
Wash and shake dry the salad leaves and put them on a serving plate. Add the grapefruit and fennel, leaving the juice in the bowl. Stir the capers, olive oil and a grinding of salt and black pepper into the juice. Finely chop the dill and add the mussels to the dressing then spoon over the leaves and serve.
Crisp little cakes, spicy as you like. I don’t feel these need any sort of sauce, but occasionally I make a dressing for them with yoghurt, grated cucumber and chopped mint leaves.
Makes 12-14 cakes, serves 4
small prawns 250g, shelled weight
soft fresh breadcrumbs 140g
spring onions 50g
red chilli 1 large
fish sauce 2 tsp
kimchi 2 heaped tbsp
mayonnaise 4 tbsp, lightly heaped
Put the prawns and breadcrumbs into the bowl of a food processor. Roughly chop the spring onions and the chilli and add them to the crumbs. Add leaves from the parsley and both the stems and leaves of the coriander. If you are lucky enough to have the roots with your coriander, add them too. Process for a minute or so, till you have a damp, crumb-like mixture.
Tip the minced prawns and their seasonings into a bowl and stir in the fish sauce. Chop and stir in the kimchi and then add the mayonnaise. Give everything a light but thorough mix. Roll into 12-14 evenly sized balls, place them on a baking tray or large plate and flatten the tops a little with the back of a spoon. Place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Warm a little oil in a frying pan. Keeping the heat moderate, fry the cakes, first on one side, then the other, for 4-5 minutes each side, until they are evenly browned. Serve immediately.
Haddock tarragon pie, dill and lemon crumb crust
I use two types of haddock here, fresh and lightly smoked. I have played around with the ratios over the years trying to find a happy balance – a filling that is neither too mild nor aggressively smoky. I have settled on one that is slightly more smoked haddock than fresh. It is something you can tweak to your own liking.
The addition of mussels is partly for the chubby little molluscs themselves – so good right now – but also for the introduction of their cooking liquor that adds a deeply piscine note to the sauce. I have gone with herbed crumbs for the crust this time, though I do like a potato topping as well. In which case I would use 1kg of potatoes and about 50g of butter for a pie this size.
For the filling
smoked haddock 750g
bay leaves 3
black peppercorns 6
fresh mussels 500g
tarragon leaves 2 tbsp, chopped
For the crust
soft white breadcrumbs 200g
You will need a deep sided baking dish, about 30cm x 22cm.
Put the haddock and smoked haddock in a large pan, then add the milk, bay leaves and peppercorns – lightly crushed – and bring almost to the boil. You may find the milk doesn’t quite cover the fish, but it will cook in the steam. Lower the heat, partially cover with a lid and leave to simmer, very gently, for about 7 minutes, until the fish is almost cooked. The skin should come off easily. Turn off the heat but leave the lid on.
Check the mussels, discarding any that are cracked or refuse to close when tapped on the side of the sink. Put them into a deep saucepan with 200ml water then cover with a tight-fitting lid and bring to the boil. Leave the mussels cooking for 2 minutes then lift the lid and check their progress. As soon as the shells have opened, they are done. Remove them from the heat, pull the mussels from their shells. Reserve the cooking liquor.
Make the crust. Put the breadcrumbs in a mixing bowl. Chop the dill and add to the crumbs. Finely grate the zest of the lemon then toss with the crumbs and dill. Melt the butter in a small pan, pour over the crumbs and stir to coat the crumbs thoroughly.
Set the oven at 180C fan/gas mark 6. Remove the fish from the milk and peel the flesh from the skin. Remove any bones. Break the fish into large pieces and put them in a bowl. Melt the butter in a medium-sized saucepan – I use a 20cm deep pan – stir in the flour with a wooden spoon and let it cook for a couple of minutes until thick. Now gradually ladle in 600ml of the milk in which you cooked the fish, discarding the bay leaves, and stir in 100ml of the mussel cooking liquor (be sure to pour this through a fine sieve as it can be a bit gritty). Keep stirring until the sauce comes to the boil, then lower the heat and let it simmer gently – stirring regularly and beating out any lumps as you go – over a low heat for 5 minutes. Chop the tarragon, add to the sauce, then add the skinned fish and mussels and season lightly – you are unlikely to need salt.
Transfer the filling to the baking dish, then scatter the buttered crumbs over the top and bake for 25 minutes till golden and crisp.
Cod cheeks with a coconut and curry leaf sauce
A quick and spicy soup substantial enough to be eaten as a main course. Most fish will settle nicely into a sauce like this with its notes of mint, tomato and lime, so go for whatever looks best on the fishmonger’s slab. Sweet and chubby cod cheeks work a treat. The splash of lime juice and the grated lime zest and chopped mint at the end is a dazzling addition.
onions 2 medium
groundnut oil 3 tbsp
fresh ginger 50g
garlic 2 cloves
red chillies 2 small, hot
turmeric 2 tsp
curry leaves 15
coconut milk 1 x 400ml tin
cod cheeks 450g
mint leaves 12
lime 1, finely grated and squeezed
Peel and roughly chop the onions. Warm the oil over a moderate heat in a large frying pan and then add the onions. Grate the ginger, peel and mash the garlic and finely chop the chillies, then mix together to form a paste.
Leave the onions to cook, with the occasional stir, on a low to moderate heat for about 15 minutes, until they have softened but not coloured. Stir in the paste and continue cooking for a minute or two then add the turmeric.
Now roughly chop the tomatoes, stir in them and their juices, then add the curry leaves. Add ½ teaspoon of salt, partially cover with a lid and leave to simmer on a low heat for 10 minutes.
Pour the coconut milk into the simmering sauce, then, as it returns to the bubble, add the cod cheeks and simmer for 7-8 minutes until the fish is opaque and will flake easily from the bone.
Ladle into bowls and add the grated lime zest and juice and the chopped mint.
Baked salmon with miso and lime
Of all the fish, I think salmon has the most successful affinity with miso. I often poach pieces of fish in miso broth for a main course quick soup with pak choi or spinach. I like it grilled with a miso and red chilli glaze, and served with rice or a pile of wide noodles.
red chilli 1 large
mirin 3 tbsp
white miso paste 3 tbsp
honey 2 tbsp
fish sauce 3 tsp
lime juice 3 tbsp
vegetable oil a splash
salmon 4 x 225g pieces
Finely chop the chilli. In a small saucepan, mix the chilli, mirin, miso paste and honey, and bring to the boil. Once the miso has dissolved (it will need a good stir) remove immediately from the heat and add the fish sauce and lime juice. Place the fish in a shallow bowl, pour the marinade over them and set aside for half an hour.
Transfer the fish to a baking dish, spoon over the marinade, then cook under a preheated grill for about 12 minutes till the sauce has started to caramelise on the surface of the fish. Serve with salad leaves dressed with a little rice vinegar and sesame oil.
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