Food: Call of the wild
Rich sauce, plain potatoes - the perfect way to serve late-season sea trout and salmon. Photograph by Jason Lowe
Saturday 15 August 1998
Young salmon, (grilse), is also now the fish to buy. As master fish man William Black says in Fish (Headline, pounds 20), his exhaustive thesis with his wife Sophie Grigson, "Grilse - fish that are returning to their home river for the first time - are good value if there's only one or two of you, and tend to weigh between 1-1.35kg." I would say that a fish of this size might easily feed more. They are every bit as delicious as sea trout, with more of the "salmon" about them. Farmed salmon are the couch potato of the fish world: a boring, fatty thing. I will defend the wild fish, long after the final wedding buffet trestle has been cleared and folded up for the very last time.
I have dallied with all sorts of cookery folly over the years - turning tired turnip dice in truffled butter; processing perfect red mullet fillets into unnecessary little mousses; and messing scallops up with a scandalous mix of sliced endive, diced salami, peppers, garlic, sherry and cream - my mother never really forgave me after I blithely ruined 10 beautiful fresh Pembrokeshire scallops, dived for that very day, one bewildered, experimental evening, circa 1974. But when it comes to eating salmon, sea trout, grilse etc, I return, time and time again, to the hollandaises, the mayonnaises, the beurre blancs, with which to dress and lubricate their pink flesh.
It is curious that rich sauces such as these marry so well with equally rich meat. Mind you, when served with mayonnaise and hollandaise, I would not be entirely happy unless there is also a little heap of pickled cucumber alongside, to cut through all the silken protein and ointment-like cholesterol. A steamed potato is all that is needed for the softening element, particularly when served with the butter sauce.
Whole poached sea trout or grilse, pickled cucumber and hollandaise sauce, serves 3-4
The cooking liquid for the salmon
1 litre water
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
1 leek, split in half, trimmed and washed
2 sticks celery, sliced
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp salt
Splash white wine vinegar
1 sea trout or grilse (about 1.3kg to 1.5kg)
Put all the ingredients for the court-bouillon in a fish kettle or deep oval pot. Bring to the boil, simmer for 30 minutes, covered. Put in the fish, bring back to a simmer for five minutes and then switch off. Leave in the liquid for 20 minutes or so. This timing is not so crucial; a few minutes here or there is not going to spoil the fish. Lift the fish out of the court- bouillon, drain well, and skin. Prise the fillets off the bone and serve with:
1 packet of unsalted butter
3 egg yolks
juice of half a lemon
salt and white pepper
To make a good hollandaise, it is worth investing in a medium-sized stainless-steel pan that has a deep-ish bowl hape to it. This makes it easier to whisk the egg yolks without them getting stuck where the whisk can't reach. The thick base of the pans is also important, as it helps insulate the yolks from too much direct heat. Never use an aluminium pan to make hollandaise as it will turn the sauce green.
Gently melt a packet of unsalted butter in one of those small milk pans (with pouring lips) if you have one. Once the butter has melted, remove from the heat. Allow to settle for a few minutes and then lift off the froth from the surface with a tablespoon and discard, making sure that the clear butter remains undisturbed underneath. Place on the side of the stove to keep warm.
Put three large egg yolks in the stainless-steel pan and add a dessertspoonful of cold water. Using a thin and whippy wire whisk (avoid ones with thick unwieldy wires) beat the yolks and water together briefly before placing over a very low light. Continue whisking in a fluid circular motion until the mixture starts to lighten and become frothy. As you continue to beat, watch carefully as the egg yolks lose some air and actually start to cook, thickening and becoming creamy and pale. It is a good idea to move the pan on and off the heat occasionally at this stage to prevent over-cooking. The egg yolks are ready to receive the butter when they are thick enough to keep the marks of the whisk quite distinctly. Remove from the heat and place on a work surface with a damp dishcloth under the pan; this simple trick keeps the pan steady as you pour in the butter with your other hand.
Continue whisking the egg yolks as you gradually add the clear butter in a thin stream. You can speed this up a bit as the sauce starts to gain body and become glossy and voluptuous. At the same moment that you start to see the milky residue in the bottom of the pan about to join the last of the clear butter, you will also notice that the sauce has become very thick indeed. This is the time to add a touch of that milky residue, just to loosen the sauce a little - a couple of dessertspoonfuls, no more. Add the juice of about half a lemon, according to taste, and season with salt and pepper. Pour into a warmed sauce boat.
1 small cucumber, peeled
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
2 tsp caster sugar
Slice the cucumber fairly thickly (pounds 1 coin thickness) and spread over a tea-towel. Sprinkle with enough salt just to lightly season them. Gather up the towel and tip the cucumber into a colander, shake out the excess salt from the towel. Leave the cucumber to drain in the sink for 30 minutes. Tip the slices back into the tea towel and squeeze lightly to remove excess water. Put into a bowl and mix with the vinegar, sugar and pepper. Leave for at least 30 minutes before serving.
Now then, who really knows how to steam a potato? Oh, come on, you may say, with some indignation. But it is only those who consider a steamed potato to be as important as what it accompanies who will achieve perfection in this controversial field. And a carelessly cooked potato, when essential to an assembly, will spoil all.
I recently ate a beautifully cooked veal chop in a favourite restaurant (again, I know, but I do love a veal chop). I ordered some creamed potatoes to go with it. They were awful: gluey, sloppy, bland and - as we say in the North - "clarty" (something that sticks to the roof of your mouth, like peanut butter). I am convinced a food processor was to blame.
So, to steam the perfect potato, it is important to find the right potato in the first place, and then cook with skins intact. One of my favourite spuds for this is the smaller, red-skinned desiree. It is important to pick out the tinies, as full-grown ones have a tendency to burst through their skins before being fully ready. Give them a good wash, drain them well and, while still damp, roll in a modicum of Maldon sea salt. Put them in a single layer in your chosen steamer and cook over gently simmering water; too fast a boil will cause the tuber to burst. I like the floury qualities of this type of potato. However, if you wish for a more waxy texture, choose pink fir apple, the French la ratte or charlotte. The method is the same for these. Jerseys I always boil with mint, but, my, they have been a sorry tasteless bunch this year, don't you think?
The only way to check and see whether a potato is done, is to pierce with a small sharp knife which should puncture the flesh with smooth ease. Do it at regular intervals as, more often than not, an under-cooked potato is an over-cooked potato before you can say Yeoman. Carefully lift out the potatoes with a slotted spoon and put on to a plate. Leave to cool for about five minutes, not much longer. It is important to peel them while they are just about capable of scalding your fingers, as the skins are so much easier to remove at this temperature. Use the same small knife that you used to test them, peeling off their skins a flimsy papery pink parchment. Return to the steamer to re-heat. Turn in copious amounts of best butter and chopped parsley, when not serving with rich buttery sauces
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