Often when I have been in a fish shop or standing at the fish counter in the supermarket and I have been asked, “How do you cook that fish?” Surrounded by the briny abundant ocean, New Zealanders grow up with fish, love their seafood, but lots of us mostly devour it as part of a takeout fish and chips meal. We really need to become a little more creative with fish cookery.
Fish is easy to cook and is the ideal meal for those who love to spend a minimum of time in the kitchen, as the best fish meals are cooked in a matter of minutes, not hours. Overcooked fish (not hard to do) is the reason that children so often turn away from fish. Fish should be super fresh and there’s no need to be shy about asking at the fish counter just how fresh that fish is. It should be gleaming, looking almost wet, and avoided if it’s dull and rather dry in appearance. If the fish is whole, the eyes are a real giveaway to freshness. They are glossy and full, while sunken dull eyes are indicators of far too long out of the sea.
Fish tends to take on an aroma that can only described as ‘fishy’ as it ages. Good fishermen know to pack their catch on to a mixture of salty ice (frozen sea water in blocks is great) to preserve the freshness. We’re lucky in our region to have the excellent Leigh Fisheries and not only are many of our restaurants supplied by Lee Fish, but the New World supermarket has access to some of the freshest fish around supplied to them directly by this fishery. Look out for it, especially a perennial favourite in my kitchen, skin on snapper – although it is pretty pricey.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to cook fish lightly. Always remember that fish, indeed anything, you are cooking will continue to cook for seconds or even minutes after it is removed from the heat. Always try to stop short of cooking it until it is firm. Perfect fish is that which is absolutely on the point of turning from pink to fully cooked. It will be moist and delicious.
Presently the citrus season has arrived and fish and a judicious amount of fresh lime or lemon will truly enliven fish and shellfish. Along the Omaha Flats bags and bags of fresh mandarins and limes can be bought at the honesty stands, and our household is consuming them faster than lightning. Try a squeeze of lime on your fish before putting it into the pan and then add another when serving. That little hit of acid makes everything taste more balanced, and certainly livelier.
I often turn to recipe books for inspiration, although it’s a rare occasion for me to reproduce the recipe exactly. I’m more inclined to read, absorb, then move into the kitchen and make my own version. I love the way the English food writer Claudia Roden writes, and in her New Book of Middle Eastern Food I found a recipe to bake fish with an easy topping made with garlic, walnuts, lemon and coriander. My version of this, using small pieces of firm-fleshed white fish and seasonal limes can be served as a delicious entrée with fresh mandarins and parsley, or as a main course with the addition of some baked or roasted potatoes.
Mandarin and Parsley Salad
6 juicy mandarins, peeled and all stringy pith removed
A handful flat-leafed parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pinch sumac (optional)
Slice the peeled and stripped mandarins into quarters or slices and place on a shallow serving plate. Pick the parsley leaves off, discarding the stalks. Toss the mandarin slices and parsley leaves together and dress with a grind of black pepper, and some sumac if you wish. Serves 4.
Walnut and Lime Fish
500g thick boned firm white fish (kingfish, hapuku, or John Dory with skin on if you can get it)
150g walnuts, coarsely chopped
A handful coriander, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 limes, juice and zest
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon freshly ground cinnamon
A pinch cayenne
Preheat oven to 180˚C. Cut the fish fillets neatly into 10cm pieces and place in an oiled baking dish. Mix together the walnuts, coriander, garlic, lime juice and zest, extra virgin olive oil, salt, cinnamon and cayenne.
Spoon this mixture over the fish and bake for 15-20 minutes or until the fish is just cooked through but still juicy. This will depend on ow thick your pieces are and also on the oven temperature. Keep it warm until serving. Meanwhile, make the salad.