I am staring into the open refrigerator trying to remember what I was looking for. When I left my cutting board, three paces away, I knew for certain what I needed. As I passed the sink, I was reasonably certain. When I opened the door, I hadn’t the foggiest notion.
That’s when Sara came into the kitchen. “What are you looking for?” she asked.
Thinking quickly, I answered, “The car keys.”
In retrospect, this may not have been the best answer. I could see Sara making a mental note to discuss this with the doctor the next time we are in.
“Just kidding,” I say, pulling out a lemon, the one I had just remembered I needed. “Nothing to worry about.”
I am cooking fish for dinner and you always need a lemon when cooking fish.
I walk back to my cutting board and set the lemon beside it.
Sara and I love fish, and we are lucky to live on a slender finger of land that stretches far out into the Atlantic, as far west as you can go in Ireland. And surrounding this spit of land are the most fertile fishing grounds in the world. We are on a mission to try every fish in that ocean.
A friend in town, a local chef, once told me when we were discussing cooking fish: “We have the finest, freshest fish in the world. Treat it as simply as possible and don’t mess with it.” (To be fair to him, since he is Irish, he did not say “mess,” but this is a family friendly blog.)
On the pier, just as you head out of town to the Slea Head Road, is the O’Catháin Iasc Teo fish factory. The factory fillets and freezes tons of fresh fish each day from the trawlers that put into the harbor just down the road, and then ship the fish all over Europe. It’s quite an operation, I’m sure. But I’m not interested in the factory.
I am interested in the small shop that sits in front of the factory. Two or three times a week we stop in to see David, our fishmonger.
David stands behind a counter of ice mounded with fresh white fish from the north Atlantic. There’s hake, pollock, and cod. Lemon sole fillets and black sole on the bone.
Skate and scallops and Dingle Bay prawns. Haddock, plaice, and John Dory. There’s squid, if you like it. And in season there is yellowfin tuna, whole sea bass, and wild salmon.
“The hake is lovely today. It just came in this morning,” David tells me.
“I’ll take half a kilo.” I answer. (That’s about a pound.) He slips it into a compostable bag and I head for home with my seven euros worth of fish.
Here’s how to handle hake:
Place the frying pan on the hob on medium high heat and add a bit of good Irish rapeseed oil. Meanwhile, slice the hake into four pieces and sprinkle it with salt and pepper. Now add a knob of butter to the pan and wait for it to melt. When the foaming calms to a slow sizzle, slip the hake into the pan, flesh side down.
When the fish is browned, flip it carefully, turn the heat down a bit, and cook another few minutes until it flakes easily with a fork. Now you can move the gloriously browned hake to a platter and slide it into the warming oven while you make a simple sauce. Working quickly, wipe out the pan and return it to the hob, dropping in another knob of butter. As it melts add a small handful of capers to the butter, maybe a quarter cup or so, and let them mingle and get to know each other for a minute or two. Take the pan off the heat and squeeze in some lemon juice and drizzle the sauce over the hake.
Add some sautéed spinach or rainbow chard and a bit of rice, shout “Voilá,” and you have a meal.
A few days later, David and I consult again.
“How is the cod?” I ask.
“Like it’s still swimming,” he replies.
The cod comes home with me.
I learned to cook cod in the oven when we lived in Singapore. I also learned not to grab the handle of the pan with a bare hand after it comes out of the oven. The downside of that experience was a bad burn on my right hand; the upside was discovering the marvelous efficiency of the Singaporean medical system at ten o’clock on a Saturday evening.
Preheat the oven to 200 C. (about 400 F.) and put your favorite cast iron skillet on high heat on the hob with some oil. When the oil is just smoking, the cod goes in for just a few minutes to brown. Olivier, the charcutier at the farmer’s market, had some good-looking chorizo the morning I bought the cod. An ounce or two of the minced chorizo mixed with some bread crumbs, parsley, and butter is waiting in a bowl. When the fish is browned, flip it and mound some of the chorizo mix on top and carefully set the pan in the oven for ten minutes.
While the fish cooks, boil some pasta – farfalle is perfect for this – and brown some butter with a few sage leaves in a skillet. When the fish is done remove it from the oven and let it sit in the pan. Resist the strong urge to touch the handle. Trust me on that. Drain the farfalle, toss it in the pan with the brown butter, some Parmesan, and a little pasta water. Squeeze some lemon over the cod. Dinner is ready.
When we first moved to Dingle, I found a restaurant supply store in nearby Killarney. Sara will tell you I am not to be trusted in a restaurant supply store. By the time we left the store, I was carrying an industrial size fish steamer for which I had paid dearly. The only way to amortize the cost of the steamer is to frequently steam fish in it.
I’ve steamed whole sea bass in it, with sliced chilis, garlic, ginger, scallions, and coriander. But sea bass has a limited season here, in order to preserve the species. Meanwhile, the steamer sits in the cupboard in the kitchen and mocks me. I was determined to use it more, and then I came across a recipe from a woman named Daisy on the internet.
The next time I went in to see David, he had some fine looking pollock in the case. Pollock is a firm, meaty fish that is perfect for steaming.
“Throw that in a bag, David,” I tell him.
Put your steamer on the hob with an inch or so of water in the bottom. You don’t need my fancy steamer; you can use a basket set over a sauce pan. Turn the heat on just enough to bring the water to a simmer. Pat the fish dry with some paper towels and sprinkle with a little ground ginger, salt, pepper, and cornstarch. Make a bed of the white parts of some scallions in the basket of your steamer and make the fish comfortable on top of them. Toss a bit of minced ginger and some scallions over the fish, pop on the lid, and let your fish enjoy its spa experience for ten to twelve minutes.
While your fish is luxuriating in the steam bath, heat a few tablespoons of oil in a sauce pan. When the oil is nice and hot, toss in some ginger matchsticks and the chopped green parts of the scallions. Stir this around for three minutes and then add a tablespoon each of soy sauce, sesame oil, and water. Let this bubble happily along until the fish is done. Arrange the fish on a platter and spoon the sauce over it, then give a good squeeze of lemon to wake it up. Stir-fried or steamed snow peas might look nice as a side.
I like to garnish the platter with some fresh herbs from the garden, but that’s just me.
Tonight, though, we are just having some simple prawns on the barbeque coated in a paste of garlic, cayenne, paprika, oil, and lemons. Quick and easy.
Now where did I put that lemon.