Give a man a fish...

FOOD: Mouth-watering mixtures of fish and potatoes
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When we think of cooking fish and potatoes in this country, one dish immediately springs to mind: fish and chips - a meal of great gastronomic importance. But these recipes are for fish cooked with potatoes.The transfer of flavours that takes place is one of the most agreeable I know and the textural contrast, too, is especially pleasing. There is no real necessity for anything else to get in the way. A few seasoning items such as lemon or vinegar, a little moistening lotion in the way of oil, butter or mayonnaise, and perhaps the occasional sprig of watercress for texture and effect are all that you need.

An oily fish, such as salmon, is remarkably good when loosely combined with crushed pieces of potato, a chopped onion perhaps, parsley and an egg, all bound into a currently most fashionable favourite: the fish cake. I don't know anyone who doesn't fancy a fish cake when the time is right. Smoked haddock and salt fish make excellent fish cakes too. The former is particularly good when mixed with chopped hard-boiled egg and a shimmy of curry spice (a sort of compacted kedgeree); the latter greatly enhanced by the addition of more exotic flavours, such as chopped lemon grass, fresh coriander, chillies and ginger.

Layering and embedding whole fishes or fillets with slices of potato and then baking in a suitable dish can be staggeringly good. The recipe that follows, using the salt cod, was so highly thought of by our photographer, Jean Casals (and 'ee ees French), that I thought he might actually wolf the lot between takes. Once again this dish could be made with the likes of smoked haddock, or just fresh cod, but the salt fish (and it was real Portuguese bacalhau, no less) somehow gives the dish a very special savour.

A few years ago I read an article on a restaurant in Barcelona called Eldorado Petit. It was written by the great and good American writer Colman Andrews, with an obvious love and understanding of Catalan food. He considered this place to be one of the finest restaurants in the world; certainly in terms if his particular world view. The photographs made me want to go and eat there that very minute (I still haven't been) and Mr Andrews' descriptions were equally seductive. The style of cooking came over as being quite simply intelligent.

But the one dish which I remember above all others was a whole John Dory baked in an oval cast-iron dish, reclining in a bed of sliced potato. I am not able to remember what the other flavourings were; perhaps a fresh bay leaf or two, some onion, some garlic? Olive oil had most definitely been used as the grease for cooking, together with the natural juices exuding from the fish and its bones. I imagine the ultra-thin slices of potato underneath soaked up both and baked themselves to perfection, with gold-tinged edges curling up like dead fish scales. I would think that you could do this dish with almost any fish, but it should always be one with bone intact. Large sardines or mackerel would be good, or some halibut or turbot steaks. Skate could work also, but leave the skin on for maximum insulation of the flesh and peel it off once the fish is cooked.

Mackerel baked with olive oil, fresh bay, lemons and potatoes, serves 4

some fruity virgin olive oil

4 medium potatoes (about 175g/6oz each),

peeled and very thinly sliced

4 whole mackerel, gutted and heads removed

8 fresh bay leaves

1 lemon, sliced into 8

sea salt

a good pinch of dried chilli flakes

1 lemon cut into 4 wedges for serving

watercress

Pre-heat the oven to 425F/220C/gas mark 7.

Take an oven proof oval dish that will take the mackerel with room to spare. Generously smear with some of the olive oil and neatly cover the base with overlapping slices of potato. Lay the four fish on top and tuck two bay leaves inside each fish together with two slices of lemon. Pour a soup-spoonful of olive oil over each fish and season with the sea salt. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes, remove, and scatter with the chilli flakes. Return for a further five minutes until the skins of the fish are blistered and the potatoes golden. Serve immediately with lemon and watercress.

Baked salt cod and potatoes with cream and garlic, 4 hefty servings

You may have to search out specialist food shops in your area for salt cod. Here in London, I go to Garcia, 248 Portobello Road, London Wl (0171- 221 6119), where they sell it ready cut in small plastic boxes. The quality is good and they stock many other delicious things: salted anchovies, anchovy-flavoured olives and very good char-grilled sweet red peppers in tins.

500g/1 1/4lbs (approx, but not less) salt cod,

weighed before soaking

a little butter

900g/2lbs medium-sized potatoes, peeled

275mls/1/2 pint double cream 275mls/l/2pint whipping cream

5 large cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 small bunch flat-leafed parsley, leaves only, finely chopped

salt and pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 375F/190C/gas mark 5.

Soak the salt cod in cold water for about 18-24 hours, changing the water from time to time. Put into a large pan and cover with cold water. Slowly bring up to just simmering (trembling water) and poach very gently for about five minutes. Carefully lift out on to a plate with a slotted spoon and leave to cool slightly. Remove all the flesh from the bones and put onto a plate. Note: it is important for the fish to be warm when removing the bones, as once cold it is difficult to separate the two due to the high degree of gelatine.

Lightly butter a generous-sized oval or round oven proof dish. Slice the potatoes thinly (pounds 1 coin thickness). Mix the two creams together and whisk in the garlic. Cover the base of the dish with a single layer of potatoes and then strew with some of the salt cod. Lightly season with salt and pepper and pour about a quarter of the garlic-infused cream over. Strew with some of the parsley and then repeat this process until all the ingredients are exhausted, ending with a layer of potatoes.

Gently press the layers with the flat of your hand, allowing the cream to rise and run over the top layer of potatoes. This will give the surface of the dish a sumptuous golden crust once the dish is cooked. Put into the oven for 20 minutes and then turn the temperature down to 300 F/150C/gas mark 2 and cook for a further 30 minutes. Test with a skewer to see that the potatoes are cooked through, remove from the oven and allow to cool for ten minutes before serving. Dishes such as these are not so good eaten piping hot. Eat with a crisp green salad that includes some watercress or with nothing at all; it is very, very rich.

Smoked haddock fish cakes, serves 4

250g/9oz cooked potatoes, crushed with a fork

250g/9oz cooked, un-dyed smoked haddock, flaked

1 bunch spring onions, trimmed, finely chopped

4 hard-boiled eggs, shelled and finely chopped

6 tbsp double cream

2 egg yolks

1 tbsp anchovy essence

1 rounded dsp curry powder

flour

25g/l oz butter

2 tbsp oil

In a large bowl, carefully but thoroughly mix together the potatoes, smoked haddock, spring onions and hard-boiled eggs with your hands until everything is well distributed. Gently whisk together the cream, egg yolks, anchovy essence and curry powder, then fold into the potato and smoked haddock mixture until well amalgamated, but don't over-mix. Form into eight cakes with neat sides and flat tops, then chill for about 30 minutes until firm. Evenly roll each one in the flour.

If you have a large enough frying pan, cook all the fish cakes in one go. Otherwise do them in batches of four. So, heat together the butter and olive oil until foaming and carefully put in the fish cakes. Turn down the heat a little and fry for about seven-eight minutes on each side until golden brown and well crusted. Serve the fish cakes with a home-made tartare sauce or a lime-flavoured hollandaise.

Incidentally, with reference to those fish and chips I mentioned, it might be of interest to some of you to have the excellent recipe for the batter we use for fish and chips at Bibendum - probably our best-selling dish, particularly at lunch time. It is one of the easiest batters to make (no whipping of egg whites) and produces a wondrous, and lasting, crisp coating to the fish.

200g/7oz plain flour

50g/2oz potato flour (fecule de pommes de terre)

1 bottle light beer (use a small Becks)

1 egg yolk

25mls/1fl oz oil

225mls/8fl oz milk

salt and pepper

Put all the ingredients in the liquidizer and blend till smooth. Pass through a sieve and leave for one hour before use. When using to fry fish, always flour the fish before coating with the batter.

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