I hate to be a bore, but this weather, eh? We’d just got all geared up for summer after the hottest March ever, braced ourselves for drought, and then April comes along with not just showers but torrential rain, thunder and lightning, hail, snow, gale force winds and all kinds of meteorological whoopass. And sunny spells. I wouldn’t say you hardly know what to wear – wrap up warm under a sturdy waterproof, obviously - but knowing what to eat is a bit of a dilemma. Jersey Royals and asparagus are with us, but it really doesn’t feel like a time for potato salads, let alone firing up the Barbie – unlike this time last year (one of the advantages of keeping a blog is having a record of these things). And yet, much as we love ‘em, a hearty wintery stew would feel like a retreat into darker days and so quite the opposite of comforting, which would not just be wrong, but unfair to the stew. But yet again, look out of the window at the slate grey skies, and listen to the wind rattling the rain battered panes, and a stew feels like just about the only appropriate thing.
So how about a fish stew? Fish because it always at least hints at something light and summery, stew, well, for the reason’s outlined above. And because, of course, a good fish stew is damned tasty at any time of the year.
Fish, of course, these days is no longer the cheap option it once was – for good if unfortunate reasons. However, even today, one of the great things about a fish stew is that it’s a great way of making a wonderful meal out of the least regarded, cheapest (if not ugliest) fish on the slab. Indeed a proper fisherman’s stew is made out of all the bits of the catch that don’t sell at - or it’s not even worth his while taking to - the market. Essentially the fish you can’t give away – not that you’d guess that from a check of the prices charged for bouillabaisse in its ‘home’ port of Marseille. Canadian writer Taras Grescoe, in his book Bottomfeeder (essential, if not particularly appetising, reading for anyone interested in the good but unfortunate reasons for the exorbitant price of fish these days) claims you can’t now get bouillabaisse in a Marseille restaurant for less than €50, and while by means of a little Googling I did manage to dig up a menu from a well recommended restaurant offering it for as little as €47(!), it’s still really quite a lot for, as Grescoe points, out a dish originally made from unsaleable fish, sea water and stale bread.
And, of course, Marseille being France, and bouillabaisse being a jewel in its cultural, let alone culinary crown, you can’t get away with mentioning it without that mouldy old chesnut, the whole tedious authenticity debate cropping up. Again. They (that is, the Marseillais, or more particularly a cabal of Marseillais restaurateurs) even have a charter – for which thanks again to Grescoe for bringing it to my attention. A charter which, rather marvellously starts with the statement that “It is not possible to standardize cooking”, before, obviously, going on to do exactly that. Nonsense, plainly, but I’m not sure I’d go as far as the ‘Bouillabaisse Milkshake’ offered at Marseille restaurant Une Table, au Sud by Lionel Levy, a chef originally from Toulouse (brave man). Nor get as snotty about it as Clare MacDonald of MacDonald in the recipe for Bouillabaisse Escossaise in her book Delicious Fish, in which she pronounces herself not at all sorry that it’s not “proper bouillabaisse ” because she finds “Mediterranean fish are pretty drab at the best of times, over endowed with bones, and this fish soup is far nicer, made with the delicious fish caught in the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean or the North Sea.” Which merely leads me to wonder why she bothered calling it Bouillabaisse Escossaise in the first place. Why not just fish soup? Or stew, which is what I’ll call mine.
Like Ms (or Baroness, if she insists) McDonald though, mine was, on this occasion made with fillets of fish from the Atlantic or the North Sea (or probably more accurately, the English channel), Pollack and whiting to be precise, two fish that, if not exactly fishmongers scraps, remain thoroughly reasonably priced for the excellent reason that their stocks, and the fishing methods used to catch them, are largely sustainable. Although, that said, in double checking their status for the purpose of this blog post, I discovered that I had bought them fresh at the one time of the year (their spawning season, January-April in the case of pollack, March-April for whiting) that they’re best left in peace. But never mind, from next week (at time of writing) you’re in the clear.
Unlike her, though, I would never claim that my fish stew was far nicer than any bouillabaisse, although I’m sure it will be nicer than some. That said, some of my fish stews will be nicer than some of my other fish stews, because, like most things, I make it slightly different every time*, depending on mood, ingredients to hand and what fish looks best on the fishmongers slab (which is always the approach to take when planning a fishy dinner). I also have to say it has not been my experience that Mediterranean fish are drab either (particularly not, most memorably from the fish market in Catania in Sicily), but that’s a whole other issue.
My fish stew (or Bouillabaisse-ish, if you like)
White fish fillets (half and half Pollack and whiting on this occasion)
Vermouth (or any white wine will do)
Aromatic veg: red pepper, red onion, fennel**, celery
Fresh red chilli
Fresh hard herbs: thyme, rosemary, sage
Fresh soft herbs: Basil, parsley, the young yellow leaves from the celery heart
Cut your fish fillets into small portion sizes, lay them in a shallow dish and sprinkle with salt, pepper and the zest of half a lemon, then pour over the lemon’s juice and a glass of vermouth (or wine).
Peel your potatoes and cut them in half (I prefer to do that lengthways, for purely aesthetic reasons), put them in a pan and just cover with cold fish stock***, bring to the boil and cook for 10 minutes, then strain the hot stock off into a bowl or big jug.
Meanwhile roughly slice your aromatic veg, and throw them into a big heavy based pot or casserole, along with the hard herbs, garlic and chilli – all chopped reasonably fine and cook them gently in plenty of olive oil, till softening.
Peel, deseed and roughly chop your tomatoes (allow 1 averagely big tomato per person), and add them to the pot along with the mushrooms (I favour chestnut mushrooms, halved or quartered depending on size)
Once the tomato has just started to collapse, add the potatoes along with the stock they were partly cooked in, and a glass of vermouth (or wine).
Cook till the potatoes are just about fully cooked, then add your fish, cover for just a couple of minutes till the fish is cooked through, sprinkle over the soft herbs and serve in deep dished plates or shallow bowls, with chunks of good bread on the side.
*The differences on this occasion were:
* We where at Becca’s family home for the weekend, and there was simply no fennel to be had at Waitrose in Henley (which would never happen at the TFC in Dalston), so I just left it out, but compensated by adding some lightly pestled fennel seeds along with the hard herbs.
** If you have bought whole fish and filleted them yourself, you can simply make a stock from their bones (or if you got the fishmonger to fillet them for you and asked for the fish ‘frames’). If not, then if you’re like me there is always either fish stock, or fish skeletons, probably both, in your freezer. If neither is the case, you’ve just got fillets of fish and no means to make or thaw out a fish stock then never mind. Just par boil the potatoes in well salted water (it should taste like sea water – which is what the fishermen of Marseille would have used for the original bouillabaisse), and use a little of that, and plenty of the vermouth as the liquid for your stew. It’ll be a little less fishy, a good bit more winey, and just as delicious, just in a different way.