Strange how fish taste so distinctive no matter how similar they often look on the surface. On the palate, kingklip is nothing at all like salmon, which is nothing like sole, which is nothing like mackerel, which is nothing like hake.
Hake and kingklip are arguably a little closer in taste than are the others, but their texture is so different that they may as well come from different oceans. Kingklip, so firm, so perfectly ordered, each flake an individual sliver in its own right, to the extent of perfection that you could, if you wanted to and had the time and inclination, take off just one flake of kingklip and use it on a canape, with a tiny droplet of sauce. I’m sure some chef, somewhere, has already thought of that.
Hake’s softness, by comparison, makes it more difficult to cook – if you so much as lightly touch a piece of hake while it is frying – too soon, and before it has had enough cooking to firm up – it is likely to start disintegrating. Yet, as long as it is fresh, if you get this right, hake can be a divine piece of fried fish. Just don’t cook it from frozen, there is absolutely no comparison in either flavour or texture. It’s surprisingly inexpensive bought fresh, and so much better.
Mackerel is among those oily fish that don’t really do it for me, but adherents swear by it … I feel (perhaps surprisingly) the same about anchovies, or at least the salty little ones we think of as anchovies. It’s a wham of flavour that I find overbearing, which is not to say I avoid it altogether. I enjoy it as an addition of flavouring to something else, but don’t like them much in their own right.
Sole is just sublime, and I like them the bigger, the better – some of those large East Coast soles can fill a big dinner plate from end to end, and the flesh is so slim on both sides of the strangely flat spine that, unless you’re one of those “I eat like a bird” types to which I’m allergic (the types, not the birds), you frankly need a large sole.
Don’t you just love the way the flesh of a sole pulls away from the spine’s centre, and that tender fish with its utterly distinctive flavour is a dream to eat. Poached, it’s good too, but for me, pan-frying is best for a whole sole.
But perhaps the most unique fish of all when it comes to distinctive flavour is salmon. That extraordinary saffron colour is a thing of beauty in its own right, but find a good piece of Norwegian or Scottish salmon and you have one of the finest fishes you can put on a plate. There’s something of the richness and oomph of Beluga caviare about that intense blast of flavour, and yet it can, for all its taste intensity, take a surprisingly subtle sauce by way of accompaniment.
I found myself in the happy possession of a slice of fillet of Atlantic salmon, lightly smoked, that I had bought from Woolworths this week. This is well worth trying, if you haven’t spotted it yet at Woolies. I also popped in the shopping basket some fresh dill, crème fraiche, a potato and a punnet of fine green beans.
Lightly smoked Atlantic salmon with dill cream
4 x 250g pieces of lightly smoked salmon fillet
2 Tbs butter or ghee/clarified butter for frying
250g crème fraiche
1 star anise
1 glass dry white wine
Dill, finely chopped (as much or little as you like – you’re not seriously going to weigh dill, are you, Daisy?)
200g fine green beans, ends trimmed
Salt and pepper
4 Tbs flour
As with pretty much any fried fish, it’s wise to follow the simple but important rule of leaving the thing alone and avoiding the temptation to shove it around in the pan. Rather don’t so much as touch it or even come near it until one side – the skin side – is cooked much of the way through. The additional advantage of this is that the skin has enough time to crisp nicely, and salmon has skin that is particularly good to eat as long as it is crisp.
Wash and pat dry the fillets. Mix salt and pepper into the flour and dip the fish fillets in on all sides. Shake off excess flour.
Melt butter/ghee in a frying pan to a moderate heat and add the star anise – which matches the liquorice flavour of dill, in its spicy way. Allow the star anise to infuse the butter for a minute or two, then discard. Fry the fillets skin-side down until the fish is cooked about two-thirds of the way through. Turn over and cook for no more than a minute on the other side, to ensure that the flesh is still moist in the middle. Wrap fillets tightly in foil and set aside.
Deglaze the pan with white wine, stirring up all the bits from the bottom of the pan. Reduce for a minute, add crème fraiche and chopped dill, and bring to a simmer. When it achieves a nice pouring consistency, season with salt and pepper.
Earlier, steam the green beans for four minutes and refresh under cold running water. Toss in olive oil in a hot pan and season to serve with sauteed diced potatoes.
I was lightly stoked with this lightly smoked salmon. Its flavour is quite something.
First published in Weekend Argus May 2012