Oddly, perhaps, for one who writes about food and has an adventurous palate, I’m not overly fond of sushi. The knee-jerk reaction on hearing this confession (some might say culinary transgession) would be to conclude that it’s because the fish is raw.
But it’s not that. I love raw fish, but I don’t want it just expertly cut and put in front of me. I like it adorned, dressed. Carpaccio of tuna is sublime. Ceviche (raw fish marinated in citrus) is a joy, as is gravadlax, the Scandinavian cured salmon which also has a zesty air to it.
I remember my first encounter with raw fish, in the mid-1980s, long before any of us had even heard the word sushi, and back when awfully clunky Cape chardonnays were being introduced and we were so impressed with them. I guess our palates have come a long way. In a top-floor suite of the Cape Sun Hotel that year, we were treated to a gastronomic affair which now we would call a menu desgustation but then we just called a lengthy dinner with lots of tiny courses. The chef came out before a particular course and explained, somewhat nervously, that the kingklip was to be served raw tonight. Riiiiiiight, we muttered, dubious, looking left and right as if wondering where the candid camera was. No, really, raw, he explained. Marinated kingklip.
We got our heads around the idea a little nervously, but when it came out – it was, I suppose we’d say now, really kingklip carpaccio – everyone finished their portion and I remember being astonished at how much I not just liked it, but loved it.
Perhaps it’s that early introduction to raw fish that has me regarding pure, unadulterated sushi today as a sort of half-baked idea. Great, lovely, it’s nice, now take it a step further, marinate it, dress it, do something other than just serving it to me with wasabi and soy. Am I alone in this? If you’re the same, I’d love to hear from you. We could start a club or a Facebook group, wear ribbons, have T-shirts printed, go on a march, boycott something. Am I getting carried away?
I wanted to try making gravadlax this week, but got stymied by the need to refrigerate it for three or four days to develop the flavours and cure it properly. Ditto carpaccio, which also needs a couple of days, according to Antonio Carluccio, and who am I to argue. I toyed with the idea of trying a Reuben Riffel recipe for a tuna and salmon tartare, which looks and sounds sublime but I wasn’t keen to go to the expense of buying salmon trout roe to finish it off. I could have adapted it, as I generally do with recipes, but then my interest was taken by a Marco Pierre White recipe for compote of salmon, which reminded me of a superb recipe Margot Janse of Le Quarter Francais used to make, poaching it in olive oil at the lowest possible temperature.
Which is pretty much how you make MPW’s compote of salmon. I had been given a side of filleted salmon trout by Charlene of CNC Products (082 443 3883), who serves top local chefs with delectable goodies from salmon trout and olives to quality cheeses and preserves. The recipe is not cheap. You need a good 500ml of extra virgin olive oil, or more, to cover the fish. Line a flat oven dish with foil, place the whole fillet on it and cover it with olive oil until it is immersed. Place lots of sprigs of dill all over it, salt all over, and put in a preheated 90 degree oven for 20 minutes. Place on a worktop, leaving it in its foil to cool. Carefully remove the fish to a board, discarding the dill and draining excess oil, and carefully flake the flesh. Using a ring mould in the middle of each plate, place flaked salmon into a neat pile. MPW tops his with creamed cauliflower, but I chose to marinate ribbons of baby cucumbers in olive oil, lemon and a little salt, and topped it with these.
An alternative starter would be to use CNC’s new salmon parcels – salmon wrapped around salmon mousse – which is a lovely and easy way to put a starter together in minutes that will impress. Make a dressing of olive oil and lemon and juice from a jar of caperberries, garnish with basil and rocket, and scatter a few caperberries around the plate.
A light but equally classy main course is to poach a whole yellowtail fillet in a classic French court-bouillon. The latter is a vegetable and wine stock in which you poach the entire fish, head, tail and all, once it’s been gutted, cleaned and scaled.
The trick is to carefully remove it to a board once cooked, so that you can peel off the skin for serving. Tricky, but effective if you can pull it off. Pleasantly old-fashioned, no gimmicks, just good simple French cooking techniques.
For this I tried my hand at a beurre blanc, the white butter sauce with shallots that is so wonderful with fish. It was.
First published in Weekend Argus The Good Weekend December 2009