I bought a sea bass this morning from Mr Hatt's ice-strewn slab. A sleek, grey and silver fish of sparkling textbook freshness, it cost under a fiver and was just the right size.
I wanted it for a solitary garden lunch, a peace offering to a soul that has witnessed rather too much grilled'n'charred blood-lust eating of late. I carried my fish home then steamed it in a gentle broth studded with needles of hot, fresh ginger root and shards of cool, crunchy cucumber. As I had hoped, it wasn't just a juicy fish-fest but restored some sort of inner balance. Followed by a pair of chilled Thai green mangoes the size of a child's fist, you couldn't ask much more of a meal.
Mouthfuls of just-cooked, chalk-white fish and spoonfuls of hot, aromatic broth are a welcome change of gear after the big flavours of grilled meat. But I had found space for grilled and roast fish earlier in the week, too: a trayful of small, sweet-fleshed red mullet from Cornwall, roasted cheek by jowl with green olives and tomatoes and heavy with garlic, and a lunch of grilled sardines whose powerful flavours and sweet, crisp skin made up for the tangle of bones we had to extract from every mouthful.
I will, given half a chance, cook fish on the bone. It stays more juicy that way and, sardines apart, usually slides off the skeleton easily enough. You can become quite a dab hand at separating flesh from bone if you take your time. It is easy to find the backbone on a cooked fish. I insert a table knife and simply slide the tender flesh off its bones. If it clings to the skeleton then you can be sure the fish isn't quite cooked. Any sign of pink and you might as well be eating sashimi. The tough 'ribs' are neither difficult to spot or to remove; it's the finer ones near the belly that are the real nigglers. I have known people take a pair of eyebrow tweezers to them. Frankly, I'd rather my guests just spat them out.
I am not sure that steaming, roasting or grilling your fish whole, rather than in neat fillets, makes as much difference to the flavour as roasting a piece of meat on the bone, but without doubt the final result seems so much juicier. And that's what it's all about. And as a bonus you also get to see the beauty of an entire fish emerge golden and crisp-skinned from the heat, a sight even more beautiful than anything on Mr Hatt's ice-covered slab.
Steamed sea bass with cucumber and ginger
You'll need a large steamer for this.
I get by with a Chinese wicker basket suspended over a casserole of boiling water in lieu of a fish kettle. It will take a shallow dish big enough to hold a small whole fish, albeit snugly. Serves 1.
a small sea bass
a piece of ginger about 5cm long
2 large spring onions
2 tbsps light soy
1 tbsp fish sauce
200ml stock (chicken, vegetable)
a pinch of sugar
2 plump stalks of lemongrass
a piece of cucumber about 6cm long
a small bunch of coriander
Rinse the sea bass, checking all the scales have been removed. Remove the head and score the fish deeply two or three times across its width to help the seasonings permeate the flesh and encourage it to cook through. Lay the prepared fish in a shallow, heatproof dish that will fit in your steamer.
Peel the ginger, finely shred then scrape it into a bowl. Trim the spring onions, finely shred and add them to the ginger. Squeeze over the juice from one lime, add the soy and fish sauce, stock and sugar and mix together. Spoon this over the fish. Smash the lemongrass with the back of a knife and tuck into the broth around the fish.
Lower the dish into the steamer basket and steam for 10-15 minutes until the fish will part easily from the bone. While the fish is cooking, slice the cucumber thinly, cut each slice into long thin shreds then add these to the fish half way through the cooking time. You want them to retain a bit of crunch.
Chop the coriander. Lift the dish out, scatter with the coriander and squeeze over the second lime.
Baked sea bream with anchovy and tomatoes
A good-sized bream will do two if it comes with robust vegetables. Of course, if you're sharing a whole fish you'll have to put up with it looking better in the roasting tin than portioned on the plate. Otherwise serve a smaller whole fish per person. Red mullet would be appropriate. Serves 2.
1 large sea bream or 2 large red mullet, cleaned and gutted
8 largish new potatoes
4 medium tomatoes
10-12 anchovy fillets
6 large, juicy cloves of garlic, peeled
a handful of fresh oregano
a good 4 or 5 tbsps olive oil
a handful of stoned black/green olives
Scrub the potatoes and slice each into three, then cook them in boiling water for 10 minutes. Set the oven at 220°C/ gas mark 8. Drain the potatoes, they should be just tender enough to take a knife point easily, and tip them into a roasting tin. Slice the tomatoes into three and add them to the potatoes.
Finely chop the anchovies, garlic and oregano together, scrape the resulting paste into a small bowl and stir in the olive oil. Season generously with black pepper and a little salt. Pour most of the mixture over the potatoes and tomatoes and gently toss together till the vegetables are covered. Keep the rest, you'll need it later. Add the halved lemon to the pan, but don't squeeze it.
Bake the potatoes for 30 minutes till soft and starting to colour. Rub the fish inside and out with the remaining seasoned oil then lay it on the potatoes and tomatoes. Tuck the olives in among the tomatoes, return the pan to the oven and bake for 15 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven. If using red mullet, put the fish straight on the plates; if using bream, scrape the skin carefully from the fish and slide a palette knife along its backbone, gently teasing the flesh from the bones into two pieces. Lift on to a warm plate then gently pull the bones away from the remaining piece of fish and lift the flesh on to a second warm plate. Divide the potatoes and tomatoes and the lemon between the fish then spoon over any pan juices. Squeeze the warm lemon over the fish.
Grilled sardines with lemon oil and basil
Serves 4 as a starter or light lunch.
16 large sardines
12 basil leaves
2 tbsps lemon olive oil
Remove the scales from the sardines with the back of a knife, slit each fish along the belly and scrape out the innards. Rinse the fish, sprinkle with sea salt and set aside for an hour.
Brush the fish lightly with olive oil and grill on both sides until tender. The skin will blacken in patches. Lift them from the grill carefully and place on a warm plate. Tear up the basil and drop into the lemon oil. Spoon the oil over the fish. Serve with crusty, white bread.