This time of year, with the nights drawing in some time around early afternoon, both the present and the future looking inescapably bleak, and the ghost of Christmas imminent haunting every waking (and sleeping) hour, it’s very easy to resort to meaty comfort foods for every meal - big hearty stews, shepherd’s pies, sausage casseroles and pot roasts. And why not? Comfort food’s called comfort food for a reason, and we all need a bit of that on these cold dark evenings. But, as Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall has been seeking to prove recently, comfort doesn’t necessarily have to be meaty. He’s right, of course, as I’ve said before, and as his River Cottage sidekick, and my own former colleague, Tim Maddams, reminded me in a recent Facebook message, reflexively falling back on meat is a lazy option for anyone who considers themselves in any way an adventurous cook. Still, as anyone who’s familiar with this blog (or even just glanced through its archive) will know, we do find big lumps of meat particular comforting in our house.
Still. To meet HFW and Tim half way, here’s a very quick, easy, cheap, convenient and thoroughly comforting dish for a cold, dark evening, made entirely without meat, even if it does feature big meaty fish steaks. And even if was conceived almost entirely out of laziness on my part.
I’d originally been thinking of making a fish stew, but my girlfriend of the time (this was many years ago) cancelled our dinner date. Which was probably just as well as I’d left it late getting to the fishmonger’s stall on Brixton market, and the two Pollack steaks I’d been able to pick up there weren’t, on their own, going to make for a very interesting stew. Cooking just for myself, as it turned out, I couldn’t have been bothered with anything as elaborate as a bouillabaisse anyway (not that a fish stew need be elaborate to be good), and decided I’d just simply cook the fish, and serve it with rice – probably, although I don’t recall this as a specific detail, simply to save myself the effort of peeling spuds.
As I had a fish stock I’d made earlier, in preparation for the stew, already in my fridge, it was hardly a leap of creative genius to think of cooking the rice in fish stock rather than water, for added flavour, and then it was purely a matter of saving myself washing up to think why not cook the fish steaks in the same pan? Why not indeed. So I simply placed them on top of the rice and stock as it simmered away. Other than that, all I did was add a dash of turmeric to the rice and stock, for a bit of colour. And it turned out memorably good.
I’ve since developed the idea (if idea’s not too grand a word) into something that a bit more closely resembles a kind of quick and easy paella by simply slicing some red onion, red pepper and/or fennel and frying that in the pan in a generous slug of olive oil with a grind of black pepper and a pinch of salt, till it’s just starting to soften before sprinkling over a teaspoon of turmeric and stirring thoroughly to get a good even coating of the bright yellow spice (by all means use saffron instead if you want to go for something more paella like, but I like to keep this non fancy, and cheap). Then I add the rice, and throw in half a glass of vermouth (if you have it, white wine if not, or even a sherry, but only the palest, driest fino, or, ideally manzanilla) and stir the rice and veg until the liquid’s been absorbed or evaporated, before pouring in the stock (add the stock hot, this does mean an extra pan to wash, but do that immediately and it really will need little more than rinsing out). Just add all – or at least most, see below - the stock in one go, as if boiling the rice in water, or making a paella, rather than adding a ladleful at a time and constantly stirring, as for risotto – this will work even if using risotto rice. I give it one good stir, then cover and leave it simmering gently for at least ten minutes before lifting the lid again to add the fish.
Exact timings will vary depending on the quantities you’re using and the type of rice. Basmati, which is what I first used will cook through quicker than paella or any of the various types of risotto rice, but will take a little longer than it would were you simply boiling it in water, as you’ll want to be cooking it at a rather lower simmer. For basmati, add the fish at ten minutes and check the rice as you do so. You may need to add more liquid at this point (you can hold back a little of the hot stock for this, or simply use water from the kettle) if it’s all been absorbed – you want to see a little residual liquid above the surface of the rice, and copious steam. Put the lid back on.
Again, times for cooking the fish will vary depending on how thick the steaks are cut. But it really shouldn’t take much over five or six minutes, seven if the steaks are particularly thick, or the controls on your stove are fine enough to achieve a particularly gentle simmer. Perhaps as much as eight in the case of both. I would turn the steaks after three to four minutes, taking the opportunity to check the rice again. Again, if need be, you can add more liquid, or just re-cover the pan and leave cooking for another two to three minutes. Or, if the rice is, or very nearly is, done to your satisfaction at this point, just turn off the heat and let the residual heat and steam finish off the cooking of both fish and rice. This should take no more than another five minutes.
If you’re using paella or risotto rice, which take longer to cook just leave it longer, say 15 to twenty minutes before adding the fish. The only trick to cooking this dish is gauging the right moment, about 5 to 7 minutes before the rice will be cooked to perfection, to add your fish. But don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be exact – the fish will be cooked gently in a moist environment, so you don’t need to worry too much about overcooking or drying out, and you can always take out your fish when it’s done and keep the rice on the heat a few extra minutes at the end to finish it off.