Sunday, 28 June 2009

Fish for Tennis

The installation of a roof on Centre Court at Wimbledon seems to have resulted in the balmiest June in recent memory. These days, English strawberries—not to mention Spanish or Chilean ones—arrive on the supermarket shelves well before the opening match, regardless of climatic variation. But it is doubtless true that summer traditions such as Pimms cup, Jersey Royal potatoes and Eton mess are more enjoyable when they don’t provide the only reminder of summer’s putative existence.

Perhaps because I spent my childhood elsewhere, I have little sentimentality for England’s variable but occasionally glorious summers. Given the choice, I would rather spend mine in a place where it’s regularly hot enough to require a cool drink, and where climate, architecture and culture all conspire to encourage time spent outdoors. (France has mastered the latter, though its northern reaches often leave something to be desired on the temperature front.) I can therefore only attribute my tangent into English summer cooking to the tennis.

Without the over-abundance of good, cheap fruit that comes from a garden or country farm stand, I’ve never really been tempted to make dessert classics such as summer pudding, preferring to eat my berries straight-up. The only exception I make is for gooseberries, whose mouth-puckering sharpness only softens with a judicious application of sugar and heat.

The gooseberries got no further adornment before being puddled next to a freshly-grilled mackerel, the classic perfection of the combination hinted at by the French word for the fruit: groseille à maquereau. And when I could find no more gooseberries, I moved on to a variation on another English summer classic, salmon and mayonnaise. Guided by Nigel Slater, I made fishcakes from salmon (and an equal quantity of smoked trout), boiled new potatoes, and generous handful of tarragon, dill and parsley, and served them with a punched-up mayonnaise full of the same herbs, lemon juice and chopped-up capers.

The tennis is only on for another week. But I suspect these dishes will be on regular rotation for at least another two months.

Mackerel with Gooseberry Sauce

Because of its high oil content, mackerel is only appealing when it’s very fresh. (If it’s unavailable, salmon fillets or steaks could be substituted.) We ended up with whole, cleaned fish, though fillets would make for neater serving. A sauvignon blanc (I like these moderately priced ones) will pick up the grassy, gooseberry flavours of the sauce and cut through the fish’s richness.

Serves 2
Total time: 30 minutes; Active time: 10 minutes

1 small basket gooseberries
Sugar to taste
Very fresh mackerel, either whole or filleted, with skin on (at least 200 grams per person after wastage)

Rinse the berries, trim both ends and place in a small saucepan. Add a tablespoon or two of water, and a tablespoon of sugar. (You may want to increase this at the end.) Place on a low heat, stirring occasionally until the gooseberries are soft and collapse under the weight of a spoon. Crush gently with a fork or potato masher, adjust sugar and set aside.

If using whole fish, heat grill (broiler), rinse fish and season. Grill on foil, turning as necessary. Fillet on a separate plate, then add the gooseberry alongside. You may want lemon, though the sauce likely adds sufficient acidity.

If starting with fillets, heat a teaspoon or two of olive or neutral oil in a non-stick pan. Start the fish skin-side down, turning with a thin, flat spatula when it has browned. Season the skinless side and cook for about ½ the time as the first side. Remove to a plate, adjust seasoning and serve with sauce.

Fishcakes with Tartar Sauce

Fishcakes can, when made small and spicy enough, be delicate nibbles. In truly tropical conditions, I’d opt for those, though the following recipe will be perfect for 99% of English summer evenings. The recipe is not particularly prescriptive: salmon can be substituted with a white fish, smoked (or unsmoked) salmon can easily replace the smoked trout and while aniseedy herbs such as tarragon and dill flatter both, the proportions can be adapted. Extra fishcakes can also be prepared up to 2 days in advance. Follow instructions through flouring the fishcakes, then cover and refrigerate until needed.

Serves 2
Total time: 1 hour; Active time: 20-30 minutes (depending on fish preparation)

Adapted from Nigel Slater's Appetite

Fishcake ingredients and initial prep
250 grams potatoes
250 grams fish (I used 1 small can of wild salmon and the same quantity of smoked trout)
Good handful herbs—a mixture of parsley, dill and tarragon works well
Neutral oil for frying

Peel the potatoes, cube or slice, and place in a pan of boiling, salted water. Cook on a medium-high heat until very soft.

While the potatoes are cooking, prepare the fish. Drain canned fish and chop smoked fish finely, placing both in a mixing bowl. If using fresh fish, poach in a shallow pan until just cooked, then cool and flake fish from skin, adding to the mixing bowl. Chop herbs finely and add to fish.

Drain potatoes. If still a bit wet, steam off excess water by placing the covered pan over low heat for several minutes. Mash with a fork or potato masher and, when cooled somewhat, add to fish mixture. Mix and adjust seasoning.

Sauce ingredients and prep
1 tbsp capers, preferably preserved in salt
Good handful herbs—a mixture of parsley, dill and tarragon works well
Mayonnaise (homemade or quality store-bought), 1- 2 tablespoons per person
Lemon juice
Cornichons (optional)

Soak capers in water to remove salt (or vinegar). Chop herbs finely and add to a small mixing bowl. Add mayonnaise to taste, aiming for something in-between a herb-flecked sauce and herbs just held together by mayonnaise. Remove capers from water, chop and add. Chop and add cornichons, if using. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and adjust seasoning.

Heat a neutral oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan until hot but not smoking. Unless your pan is non-stick, you’ll want enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Put several tablespoons of flour on a flat plate and flour hands lightly. Form fishcakes about 3-4 inches in diameter, flatten slightly and dredge in flour. As each is ready, place gently in the oil. Fry each fishcake until it is crisp and golden on the bottom, then turn carefully with a flat spatula. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels and serve with sauce and freshly-steamed peas and/or asparagus.

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