The tiniest fish I’ve eaten – well, okay, the second-tiniest if you count whitebait – were perch caught in Lake Geneva. I was staying at the Hotel l’Ermitage at Montreux, that chocolate box picture-perfect town backed by snow-capped peaks and fronting on to that endless lake, and famous for the annual jazz festival.
I had ordered it from the dinner menu without a clue as to what it was like and I was astonished to be presented with a plate of what must have been 20 or so of the little critters, flour-dipped and panfried in butter and then served with parsley and lemon. Crisp, soft and wonderful, they remain one of the most memorable yet simple fish dishes I’ve tasted anywhere.
Whitebait, which you find at the Cape in certain unpretentious seafood restaurants, the kind of places where you can roll your sleeves up and get stuck in, is a poor alternative but nevertheless a pleasant treat, like a fishy bowl of chips, especially if served with a good home-made mayo.
In recent years our local Ocean Basket fast-fish franchises have taken to serving baby kingklip, which is the size of about 20 perch, and despite niggling concerns about the morality of plucking them from the sea so early, I have enjoyed them a few times.
Baby kingklip – more like adolescent kingklip, really – is almost like a meatier, fatter sole, its flesh pulling easily away from the firm spine, and the texture is firm and moist, or should be. At Ocean Basket they grill it to a lovely crust. All it needs is salt and a squeeze of lemon juice and you have a very satisfying meal.
Lately I’ve noticed that Pick n Pay’s fish departments have been selling fresh baby hake fillets in packs of two or three. These are as big, I guess, as about six or seven perch, or about half a baby kingklip, so you would need two for a reasonable portion or three for the greedy. And some are bigger, or smaller, than others.
I thought I’d try them, wondering whether they’d have any residue of bones, and whether these Twiggy-slim fish would be anything more than an annoyance once they got to the plate. I detest a bony fish, and a promised fillet that turns out to have bones can press all the wrong buttons.
I needn’t have worried. The finished product had not a single bone, the skin cooked to a crisp, and the flesh was perfectly moist and had a great texture. I panfried them simply in butter, and here’s how…
Panfried baby hake fillets with five-spice caramelised onion and sauté potatoes
2 hake fillets per person
Butter for frying
1 large onion, sliced
2 Tbs olive oil
3 heaped tsp Chinese fivespice
250ml dry white wine
1 Tbs honey
3 Tbs chickpea flour
1 large potato for each person
1 spring onion, sliced lengthwise, for garnish
Sauté the sliced onions in olive oil until they soften, add 2 tsp fivespice and stir over the heat for two minutes. Add the white wine and reduce until the wine has almost cooked away. Set aside. I used red-skinned potatoes that Pick n Pay is selling at the moment. It’s good to see a little variety coming into the local potato market, although we’re still way behind the UK where there are loads of different varieties in some supermarkets and where the packaging includes advice on which potato suits which cooking method.
Once peeled, these were as white as any other, and just right for being sautéed.
Peel the potatoes and cut into small cubes. Steam until parcooked but not so cooked that they disintegrate when prodded gently with a fork. Set aside to drain, then pat dry. Sauté in butter, turning so that all sides turn golden brown. Salt.
Wash the fillets and pat them dry with kitchen paper. Mix a teaspoon of fivespice into the flour and coat the fillets thoroughly. Panfry in butter, skin-side down. Shake the pan to stop them sticking, but then do not touch them for about three minutes, otherwise you risk the flesh falling apart. Turn for about a minute. I do not like fish to be overcooked and consequently dry.
Panfried fish is best left a little moist at the centre, especially fish such as salmon or the local alternative of salmon trout, and tuna, which of course is even good served rare, unlike other fish. But to cook a piece of fish until its texture has been ruined is not the way to go.
Serve the fillets on a bed of the onions, with the potatoes alongside. Quickly cook the spring onion, including some of the green part, in butter, just for a few seconds, and use as a garnish.
First published in Weekend Argus April 2012