Thursday, 4 January 2007

No Smoking Ban

I'm blessed these days when it comes to my favourite food and the resources available to me - fish. After spending 13 years inland and moving back to my roots, I didn't realise how lucky we are to be living by the coast. Okay, our waters are apparently over-fished and sustainable stocks are a must for a clear mind, but to be able to walk into a fishmongers with confidence knowing that the piece of fish you are about to buy is as fresh as can be makes me a happy man. You should know the score when it comes to checking out the freshness of a fish - the eyes looking at you as if it were still alive rather than sunken and grey. Giving it a prod, the flesh should spring back at you rather than leaving a dimple. The gills when lifted sparkling with crimson red and take a sniff. If it smells fishy, put it back, give your fishmonger a dirty look then walk away.

Of course, one piece of fish that you can't really do the eyes and gills test with is a smoked fish. In this case, smoked haddock. For me though, the test remains simple. If it is glowing orange, leave it be as it has not been smoked the traditional way over Oak shavings. It has been painted with chemicals that make it smell and taste as if it has been smoked but once eaten you can tell by the bitterness left on the palate that it was an impostor. Lift it up, smell it for non-fishiness and prod it as above. It should be a solid meaty slab of smoked goodness ready for all kinds of wonderful dishes. Preserving of foodstuffs has to be one of the oldest yet essential techniques that has survived the test of time and fortunately we have never lost the art of salting, curing and smoking, nor have we been forced to change due to modernisation.

Last week I hosted a party of 12 as part of my service and served the hungry lot a starter that, for me, celebrates all that is amazing about this wonderful technique of smoking. Take a piece of smoked haddock (mine purchased from Latimers Fish Deli in Whitburn, Tyne and Wear, an absolute treasure of a shop), smother it in the most wonderful sauce and serve it with it's natural vegetable accompaniments and it ensures satisfaction all round. I make my sauce using the milk I poached the fish in to give that smoked backdrop and a spoonful of Dijon mustard to lift it with a small punch of flavour. Wholegrain works equally well. Fewer vegetables go as well with fish than fennel. Aniseed and liquorice undertones make it the most intriguing bulb, and serve it raw and sliced thin with pear and watercress, the elements combine in your mouth with glee.

I'm convinced that this dish can change the mind of even the most sceptical of fish or smoked food haters, and I have not heard one person say otherwise after demolishing a plate. Make it, eat it and be happy, especially if you live by the sea....

To serve 2 as a main or 4 as a starter
2 pieces of natural dyed smoked haddock, boned and cut into equal pieces.
1 pint of whole milk
1 onion
3 cloves
5 peppercorns
Bay leaf
2oz plain flour
2oz butter
Dijon or Wholegrain mustard

For the salad
1 pear (reasonably firm and in season)
1 bulb fennel
Dressing made with olive oil, lemon juice and black pepper

1 - Half the onion, stud with cloves, place in a shallow pan with the haddock, bay leaf and peppercorns. Pour milk on to cover and bring gently to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes.
2 - Drain the fish and keep warm under foil. Strain the milk.
3 - Make a roux by melting the butter and mixing in the flour. Gradually stir in the milk, continually stirring, until you have a reasonably thick white sauce. Season with a good dollop of mustard and taste until a kick is achieved.
4 - Thinly slice the fennel and pear, combine with the watercress and dressing.
5 - Serve the salad alongside the fish with a drizzle of mustard sauce on. Heaven.

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