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Hey sesame (oil)! A kitchen eureka moment…

Sesame-fried hake with exotic mushrooms

An oil that is said to help lower both blood pressure and cholesterol and even boost weight loss, and which is nevertheless delicious to cook with, has to be on your shopping list.

I used to think of sesame oil merely as a flavourant or condiment. Something to use sparingly as an adjunct to something else, to add a little of the sweet and spicy sesame zing without overpowerring the dish. But then I decided to get adventurous with it. Instead of a few drops here or there – in a marinade or baste, or in a dressing – I started using it by the tablespoonful. And I soon realised that the flavour of sesame oil reaches a plateau, so that by adding considerably more, you’re spreading the flavour further through whatever you’re coooking, rather than intensifying the sesame taste of each morsel.

This little breakthrough has turned sesame oil from also-ran status in my kitchen into a key ingredient. So now I’ve gone a step further. I’ve started using it as a mainstream cooking medium, in the same way as you would use butter or olive oil. It’s not something you’d use in this way too often, simply because it’s an oil that does two things at once – it’s the frying medium, and also the chief flavouring ingredient of what you’re cooking in it. So there’s no use employing it to fry something for, say, an Italian meal, as it would fight with the tomato, garlic and Parmesan – there’d be mayhem in the pan.

It’s not an overly “oily” oil, if that makes sense. If you dip your finger in it, compared to doing so in olive oil or sunflower oil, for instance, it doesn’t have nearly that dense, oily character of the last two. I’ve fried chicken breasts in it, and they turned out beautifully, and this week I experimented with fresh fish fillets, not sure how it would turn out.

Woolies has been punting its fresh wild-caught hake fillets, skin on, with 25 percent off the price, so I popped one in the trolley this week for a light lunch, with some Asian mushrooms – shiitake, shimeji and king oyster – as well as some fresh coriander to finish it off with. The sesame oil was already in the pantry, though nearing the end of the bottle as I have been using it more and more.

For the mushrooms, you need a little sesame oil, two garlic cloves sliced very thinly, and a small handful of finely chopped fresh coriander leaves.

Years ago I picked up a tip from the venerable Ina Paarman about salting a fish fillet lightly and letting it stand in the fridge for half an hour to firm up the flesh, which helps it to hold together when frying. Cut off the tail ends of the fish fillets and pop them in a small saucepan with half an onion, roughly chopped, with cold water to cover. Reduce this on a very high heat until you have about 6 Tbs simple fish stock.

This done, I got the wok out. Pour sesame oil (about 2 Tbs) into the wok before you apply it to the heat. Once it’s medium-hot (the sesame oil will emit a llttle smoke), chuck in the garlic slices and then the mushrooms (halve any shiitake mushrooms that are quite big, otherwise leave them whole, and cut the king oysters into about four long, narrow slices).

Stir-fry for a couple of minutes until the mushrooms are just done. Toss in the coriander leaves and stir. Keep this off the heat, to be reheated very quickly when the fish is ready to serve.

I like to use my large, flat heavy enamel frying pan for fish. It’s an old thing I picked up at a second-hand kitchen store years ago, and probably dates to the Fifties or Sixties. I wouldn’t use a ridged skillet for such a delicate fillet of fish as hake, as it is highly prone to falling apart if not treated very carefully, and the uneven ridges would only compound the likelihood of this, even if the ridges would give the skin an attractive pattern. Save that for a firmer, hardier fish such as kingklip.

Heat a couple of tablespoonsful of sesame oil in the pan over a medium to hot heat – not so hot as to burn the skin side too quickly, but not so cool as to draw out the juices into the pan instead of searing them and keeping them inside to ensure the flesh is nice and moist. On my stove that would be number 4, but stoves have personalities of their own.

When the heat is right, test it by touching the oil with one end of a fish fillet. If it bubbles immediately and fairly vigorously, lay the fillets in the oil side by side, with an air space between them, give the pan a shake, then leave them untouched for a good five minutes or so while they cook to just past midway through the flesh. Interfering with them in any way is likely to cause them to disintegrate.

Carefully slide a spatula underneath and turn them. They only need a couple of minutes more on the flesh side, and fish is always better just a tiny bit underdone in the middle. If you haven’t yet got your head around this, just give it a try. It doesn’t mean “raw”. That’s just a switch you have to flick in your head. After a few outings you’re very likely to be a convert to this thinking. No self-respecting chef will be happy sending out a portion of fish that’s overcooked and dry in the middle – whch makes the outer edges even drier. That’s the trick.

Quickly reheat the mushrooms in the wok, and plate up with the fish and a garnish of coriander. On a high heat, strain the fish stock into the pan in which you fried the fish, scrape up all the bits, and pour alongside the fish. There you go.

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