Saturday, 3 June 2017

Tricks to crispy pan-fried fish, and...Chicken & Rice is out in German!

I must admit it’s not been easy keeping up with the blog, but once in awhile, on a long lazy bank holiday weekend with hardly enough sun to be outside in the park, it’s wonderfully relaxing to have the laptop open with a steaming cup of tea on the side. I reopen all the half-finished blog posts and photos that never got to see the light, and here I am.

First up, new news.

I've been bursting to share this ever since my little fingers got hold of the first copy: Chicken and Rice is now available in German. Danke Dumont Buchverlag for taking my baby on, and the Penguin sales team for making it happen. To any of my German friends and readers out there, please have a look out for it on the shelves; or if you'd like to buy a copy online, I've linked up details below too.

And now, the unfinished post about fish.

While my preference for cooking fish is always whole, the reality of reaching home at 7pm after work means that the fishmongers are shut and my next best option is the fish counter at Sainsbury’s. I mostly give up and happily eat vegetarian (ish) on weeknights. However, if I really want fish on a Wednesday night, I have to make do with fillets, sometimes fresh sometimes frozen from my last trip to the fishmonger’s. This doesn’t really match up to the glamorous ideal that food writers tend to paint of their grocery shopping; but I’m guessing this too is the situation an everyday cook faces. 

I do like fish fillets; they just require a bit more attention to timings and techniques, especially if you’re pan-frying them. You’ve probably learnt at some point in your cooking journey that impatience/ carelessness leads to the fish falling apart. The flesh tough and overcooked. The skin sticking. I thought then to share this simple recipe for pan-fried hake that I did one evening. Treat this not so much as one recipe, but rather, a little set of tips for getting perfectly cooked fish with crisp, golden skin.


serves 2
2 fish fillets, I used hake in this case
2 tablespoons groundnut oil, for frying
3 cloves garlic, chopped
Pinch of sea salt

For the marinade

4 tablespoons Kikkoman low-sodium soy sauce* 

2 tablespoons rice wine or sake
1 teaspoon sesame oil

To serve

1 spring onion, finely chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped

*While I tend to go for regular soy sauce in most of my cooking, I like the low-sodium version in marinades that I’m leaving delicate fish in. This prevents it from being a salty disaster even when I leave the fish to steep for a few hours.

  1. The trick to getting crisp golden skin is to make sure the skin is completely dry. This is trickier if you’re using defrosted fish – make sure to pat dry and leave in the fridge, uncovered, for a little while. Another tricky scenario is if you like your fish a bit more interestingly seasoned than plain old salt and pepper. For this marinated hake recipe, I stir together the ingredients for the marinade, and pour into a small baking tray, before adding the fish fillets, skin-side up. Place in the fridge uncovered for at least 15 minutes, during which you can go prepare the rest of dinner or even go have a shower.
  2. This extra step is a special one specific to this recipe. I add a bit of oil to a pan and fry chopped garlic over medium heat till they are golden, before removing and setting them aside to let them cool and crisp up. Leave the oil in the pan.
  3. Remove the fish from the baking tray, reserving the marinade. Pat the skin dry with a kitchen towel and season with a tiny pinch of salt. Heat the oil until it is very hot, but not smoking. Place the fish in the pan, skin side down.
  4. Press firmly down on the fish with a spatula until it relaxes and lies flat. Alternatively, score the skin of the fish lightly after Step 2.
  5. Turn the heat down to a medium and cook until the flesh is nearly opaque. While that’s happening, the bottom will get all nice and golden brown and crisp but DO NOT flip to check, or you risk the fish breaking up into pieces. That’s how curiosity killed the cat’s perfectly pan-fried dinner.
  6. Slide your spatula under the fillet, and using your other hand as a guide, flip it over, away from you. Remove the pan from the heat and let the other side finish cooking in the residual heat of the pan, it will only take a minute or less, depending on how thick your fillet is. Err on the side of undercooking, remember it will continue cooking in its own residual heat.
  7. Remove the fish from the pan and pour in the reserved marinade. Place the pan back over the stove and bring it to a boil, letting it simmer for a couple of minutes before pouring over the fish. Finish with the crispy garlic, chilli and spring onions.
  8. Serve straight away with your choice of sides – plain steamed rice and vegetables are perfect against this. 

This recipe is incredibly versatile, and can be used for various other kinds of fish and with different sides, e.g. salmon, over noodle soup.


Sunday, 22 January 2017

Cantonese Sizzling Steamed Whole Sea Bream

The indulgent days of roast turkey and crispy fat-drenched potatoes don’t seem very far away at all, but it’s another period of extravagant feasting for those around the world who celebrate the Lunar New Year.  This year it falls in the month of January – all too soon to go off the good intentions and resolutions set at the start of the year. Luckily, aside from the rich lard cookies and candied goodies your aunties and uncles cram gleefully into your hands, the traditional New Year dishes for the reunion dinner table can quite happily fit into a healthy eating plan.

One Chinese New Year classic is a whole steamed fish. The Chinese name for fish (yu) sounds like the word ‘prosperity’ – that alone is reason enough for Chinese families to put it on the reunion dinner menu. But dubious auspicious reasons aside, this is a dish that’s light, delicious, and easily a stunner on the table. Fish is almost always steamed whole back home, and for good reasons.It's harder to overcook fish on the bone, and the results are almost always perfectly moist, tender and flakey. Plus it's easier to tell freshness with a whole fish – more on that below. 
Today’s recipe is for the classic Cantonese-style steamed fish. I love serving this when I’m hosting a dinner party because you can really turn up the theatrics and then bask in the oohs and aahs of your guests. Unlike Teochew-style steamed fish (also a favourite), the Cantonese version is finished with a drizzle of hot oil, so it sizzles and crackles and releases the comforting aromas of ginger and spring onion. Aside from the aforementioned ingredients, the only thing you really need is fish and soy sauce.

Because the ingredients list and recipe are both so simple, I really want to emphasise on the quality of the ingredients here. Taking care in choosing the ingredients is Step 1 (or Step 0 I guess) in this recipe. I’m not the biggest fan of fish that’s already cut up, packaged in sterile plastic packets and stacked on the supermarket shelves – I can’t feel the fish, I can’t sniff it (and if I can, something’s really gone wrong). Visit a good fishmonger you can trust – that’s where you sniff out the best catch of the day, and where you can judge for yourself how fresh the fish is. Fresh fish should have bright eyes, healthy red gills, moist glistening skin and feel firm to the touch. As for the soy sauce, a good one will have the depth and complexity of flavours from the traditional long fermentation process (think craft beer) – there are many quality brands out there now, but an easily available favourite is Kikkoman.

serves 2-3 as a side with rice and vegetables

1 whole sea bream
1 tsp unrefined sea salt
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
3 stalks spring onions, 1 of them finely shredded
3 tbsp good soy sauce
2 tsp unrefined light brown sugar
1 tsp sesame oil
2 tbsp groundnut oil
1 inch piece of ginger, finely shredded
handful of chopped coriander leaves

1. Wash fish and pat dry, then rub evenly with salt and rice wine. Make sure to rub inside the belly. Place the fish over two chopsticks, or even 2 stalks of spring onions, set over a plate. This will make for more even cooking.
2. Set up a steamer by putting a rack into a wok/pot over boiling water, and set the plate of fish on the rack (make sure it doesn't touch the water). Steam over high heat until just cooked, about 18 min for mine.
3. Carefully transfer the cooked fish to a new plate. This is where it differs from the one-plate Teochew-style. You don't want the old plate and especially not the fishy cooking liquid on it.
4. Stir together the soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil, and drizzle over the fish. Scatter the spring onions and ginger over.
5. Heat the groundnut oil in a pan until smoking, and then immediately pour over the fish. It will sizzle and crackle delightfully, like this (yes I took a video the first time I did it). Garnish with coriander, and serve straight away with plain steamed rice and your favourite vegetables.