Something fishy’s going on
Simon Hopkinson revisits one of his favourite fish recipes
ACOOKY friend, in conversation recently, reminded me of a fish dish that I had included in my first cookery book, Roast Chicken and Other Stories (1994, Ebury Press)—how easy it is to forget some of one’s most favourite recipes from the past. Warm hake with thinned mayonnaise and capers is not, shall we say, a recipe title that might thrill in these days of everything seemingly burnished and smoked, but you would be wrong. It is delicately delicious.
The word ‘warm’, when attached to any kind of food, engenders all sorts of temperature worries: ‘What kind of warm does one mean? And, anyway, why? Surely food should either be served hot with a nice sauce or cooked and served cold with a little slicedcucumber salad.’ Such a query sounds as if it may have been voiced by a Society hostess from a 1960s edition of Queen magazine—or Woman and Home, at least. The very idea of cooked food served hovering somewhere between hot and cold remains somewhat queer, even today.
Turbot à la Monégasque, a supremely splendid dish, used to be served every single day at the legendary L’etoile restaurant on Charlotte Street, just off Tottenham Court Road. I’d already read of this place before I first arrived in London in the late 1970s, then as an eager Egon Ronay inspector, and was therefore thrilled to know that a visit to this ‘noteworthy establishment’ was to be one of my earliest inspections.
And so it finally appeared before me, the large glass dish set among other favourites on the famous trolley of hors d’oeuvres that would be quietly wheeled around the dining room by a waiter of a certain age, who might have been working up to his present role since a teenage commis waiter.
Barely poached, almost translucent flakes of warm turbot were buried among wobbling layers of a slackened aïoli (garlic mayonnaise), ever-so-thinly sliced raw white onion and chopped parsley. The top layer of the dish was garnished with black olives, watercress and a final gloss of olive oil as a finishing shine.
I shall never forget seeing the waiter’s big silver spoon delving into that fine mass, lifting the most perfect scoop onto my plate in as nonchalant a way as he might deftly wipe his nose with a fine linen handkerchief— elegant, assured, habitual, every day. Rare, these days, such stylish insouciance.
Salmon with sorrel sauce Serves 2
In the mid 1980s, there was an obsession among some highprofile chefs in London that ‘pretty and novel’—nouvelle cuisine at its most absurd, shall we say—was the way forward. A young chef who worked with me at the time—he’d come from a pretty and novel kitchen— became quite exasperated by the fact that, when the brightgreen sorrel leaf wilts into a hot sauce, it quickly dulls to a shade of olive.
‘Why won’t it stay nice and green?’ wailed Terry. ‘Well,’ said I, ‘that is what sorrel does when you cook it.’ He attempted every trick in the book to keep it green and, of course, failed. ‘You do the salmon,’ he said with frustration. ‘I’ll do the hake with parsley and clams—at least parsley behaves itself.’
This iconic dish was created by the Troisgros brothers at their immaculate restaurant in Roanne, France, in the 1970s or thereabouts. Here is my interpretation.
1 small, finely chopped banana
shallot 200ml dry white wine 100ml dry vermouth 1tbspn white-wine vinegar A grind or two of white peppercorns Tiny pinch of salt 4tbspn double cream 40g unsalted butter, cold, in
small chunks 4 slices salmon (about 400g in all), cut from a fillet on a slight bias 1 large bunch sorrel, stripped from its stems and roughly chopped A squeeze of lemon juice
Place the first six ingredients in a stainless-steel saucepan and reduce, over a low heat, until only about two tablespoons of liquid remain. Pour in the double cream and whisk together. Bring back to the merest simmer and then, off the heat, whisk in the butter, bit by bit, until the sauce is glossy and the texture of pouring cream. Strain through a fine sieve into a clean pan and put to one side.
Heat a teaspoon of oil in a large, non-stick frying pan, swirl it around and quickly fry the salmon slices for no more than a minute or two on each side; they should be pink in the middle.
Transfer the fish to hot plates and gently reheat the sauce, adding the sorrel. Stir until it wilts and the sauce is hot (do not boil) before adding the lemon juice. Pour around the fish and serve at once.