A couple of posts back I wrote about how, at this time of year and with the arrival of (finally!) some proper winter weather, then food-wise it was all about big meaty stews and hearty soups, and then I went ahead and wrote up a chickpea and spinach dish just to be contrary/prove there was an alternative. That last bit was plainly unnecessary. Looking back over the posts I’ve published since the turn of the year proves me to be a liar: it’s apparently not about meat, stews and hearty soups at all - or at least only one post in 9 covering any of that would certainly suggest not – it’s mainly about fish and veg. So to continue in the same vein, here’s the smoked haddock risotto I promised in my last fishy post. Of course, what this time of year is really about, foodwise, is comfort food, and this particular dish meets every kind of definition of comfort food I can think of. In fact I’d have to say it pretty much provides a definition in itself.
First thing, of course, is to get yourself some smoked haddock, by which I mean natural smoked haddock, which you will find on the fishmonger’s slab in a pale and interesting shade of golden beige, NOT a lurid chrome yellow. I the food snobbery and hate to make any statement that might be interpreted as such, but really – bright yellow smoked haddock? Why? Who the fuck’s idea was that, and how did it catch on? Stop it, all right? Just stop it.
Anyway, once you have your haddock, slice an onion and a bulb of fennel, in roughly equal quantities, and make a bed of them in the bottom of a suitable risotto making pan, along with a few fronds of the fennel leaves if the bulb has them, and a twist or two of black pepper. Lay your haddock fillet on this bed and pour over a glass of white wine. You need to cover the onion/fennel bed, but the fish itself doesn’t need to be submerged. Cover the pan and put it over a lowish heat to bring the wine to the simmer and gently poach the fish for little more than a minute, maybe as many as two for a particularly thick fillet, once the wine is simmering. Err on the side of underdone at this point.
Remove the fish and put it in a dish, pour the poaching wine over it, leaving the onion and fennel in the pan. Add a little olive oil and a sprinkling of fresh thyme leaves – and maybe a little finely sliced or crushed garlic, although this is one of the few instances where I’d be inclined to make a risotto without – you may also want to turn up the heat just a little, until the onion and fennel are just turning soft and translucent. From this point on you are simply making a risotto in the usual way, adding the rice to the onion base, then half a glass of wine and hot fish stock a ladleful at a time (my stock was made from the frames of the sardines – or rather ‘aloha’ - I’d filleted the week before, and put in the freezer for quick and easy stock making when needed: I just put the frozen carcasses in a pan with a stick of celery, a carrot and an onion, all very roughly chopped and a sprinkling of herbs and spices, cover with water, bring to the boil and gently simmer for about 20 minutes.)
While the risottos cooking, add a good handful of frozen peas to the dish of haddock and poaching liquid, and a smaller quantity of rinsed capers (I’d suggest a pea:caper ratio of 4:1 or thereabouts. The capers are, of course, optional, but then so is everything in a recipe…). There’s no need to cook the peas, the residual heat from the poaching liquid will do most of that and they’ll finish cooking with the risotto.
When the risotto is just a fraction short of done add the dish of fish, peas, capers and wine, a final splash of hot stock and stir it all through. Add some fennel fronds, torn celery leaves and/or fresh parsley. Stir it all through, letting it cook together for a minute or two, no more, and serve up.
Simple, beautiful, comforting and very delicious. And, credit where it's due, even if it can be only vaguely assigned: I owe the idea for this dish to a customer who came into the wine shop where I work part time, asking for a bottle of wine to cook it with - and of course to drink with it. I'm afraid I can't remember who he was, or even what wine I recommended, but it would definitely have been something light, crisp and fresh, but with real depth of flavour and just a hint of aromatics - perhaps an Alsace pinot blanc, or a Spanish verdejo.