The nice people with whom I ate my merluza (hake, don't you know, best- beloved fish of the Spanish), are curers of Serrano ham who live nearby, and they knew the restaurant well. I asked if it would be possible to have the famous hake in green sauce, as I sussed it was not about to be included in the verbal menu that was being swiftly delivered - nay gobbled.
As it happened, they were only too delighted to serve me the second most famous Spanish dish after Paella, and a cracker it was, too. I had duly read over the years what a wonderful thing this dish of green hake could be, but, as is the way of things regional and recipe-bound, the version on this occasion was not like any I had previously put into the gastronomic world memory bank.
First of all, two short lengths of tinned white Spanish asparagus were perched atop the fish, which in turn sat in a pale, limpid sauce the colour of strained milky porridge, almost jelled in consistency, yet hot. Just discernible flecks of dull green parsley floated about a bit, and the only key note which rang true was the well-used, terracotta dish it was served in. There were none of the clams, peas or mussels I had read about before, nor was the more prosaic onion included. It was simply hake, slightly browned garlic, perhaps a smidgen of white wine, olive oil, the restrained parsley and the juice from the fish as it cooked. The addition of the asparagus was actually delicious, and I reckon some of the juice might have been included, too. Have you ever had tinned Spanish asparagus, by the way? They are highly thought of in the Iberian peninsula, and come in deep, rectangular tins. Both containers and contents are handsome to behold, and they taste really good.
Incidentally, it was not until I returned home and cooked my hake (well, it's cod in the picture, actually, because I could not come by any hake; all snapped up by the Spaniards, no doubt), that I had ever had the balls to put one of those terracotta dishes directly onto the flame. When I declared over lunch this pathetic lack in my culinary worldliness, my charming hostess looked at me in disbelief and said: "But, of course, we hardly cook in anything else! However, it is important that you boil water in it for a generous half-hour before you think about cooking anything" - the Spanish equivalent of heating salt in the omelette pan. She went on to say that the real secret of coercing a good salsa verde was down to the shaking action that brings the sauce together at the end. Most of the liquid that forms the sauce simply exudes from the hake as the fish is left to rest and steam, covered, after its initial cooking.
I was also recently chatting to my friend Ricky Stein, who has the (surely, by now) world-famous Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall. He also considered the addition of clams and peas as authentic, but agreed over the paucity of parsley in most cases. And because he is such a huge star now, I instantly agree with everything he says. However, on glancing at the recipe for hake with clams and green sauce in his Rick Stein's Taste of the Sea (BBC Books), I notice he includes asparagus, too. And chilli? But I bet it's delicious. Oh pish! I think I'll just do my own thing.
Hake, serves 4
4-6 tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
salt and pepper
4 thick hake fillets, around 150g/6oz each, skinned and any tiny bones removed with tweezers; failing to find hake, substitute cod
1 tbsp flour
1 small glass dry white wine
3 tbsp freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley
Heat the olive oil in a terracotta dish (or shallow cast-iron pot or deep frying pan) and throw in the garlic. Allow to become pale golden over a low heat, and then lift out of the pot onto a plate. Turn up the heat slightly, season and lightly flour the fish fillets and lay in the garlic-flavoured oil. Fry gently until a little coloured on each side and add the wine. Lift and tilt the dish so the wine runs around and under the fish. Set to simmer for a few minutes, add the garlic back to the dish and sprinkle over the parsley. Put a tight-fitting lid on the pot - or foil. After 30 seconds, switch off the heat and leave to rest and finish cooking for 10 minutes.
Lift the lid or foil and check the fish is cooked. Bring back to a simmer and shake the pan around a bit, so the parsley disperses through the sauce (you may use a wildly inauthentic spoon here - I did), and the olive oil emulsifies into the juices. Practice makes perfect, I'm afraid. With that motto in mind, it makes me feel a bit better to admit that I put the sauce into the liquidiser for a quick blast, which is why it looks so wonderfully green. Note: if you don't think you have enough liquid, add a splash of water.
Skate persille with sauce gribiche, serves 10-12
I wanted to give another hake dish from Rick Stein's brand-new book, Fruits of the Sea (BBC Books, pounds 17.99), that accompanies his current television series, but as I was trawling (pun intended) through the book, I came across this recipe.
1 skate wing, weighing about 900g (2lb) 4 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
2 shallots, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tbsp cold water
1 x 11g/0.4oz sachet of gelatine powder salad leaves to garnish
For the court-bouillon:
1 bottle dry white wine
1.2 litres/2 pints water
2 fresh bay leaves
12 black peppercorns
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 celery sticks, chopped
1 tsp salt
2 slices of lemon
2 star anise
1 fennel bulb, chopped
For the sauce gribiche:
3 large eggs
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
120ml/4fl oz olive oil
3 small gherkins, very finely chopped
1 tbsp capers, very finely chopped
1 tbsp chopped fresh tarragon
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
Put the ingredients for the court bouillon into a pan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 15 minutes. Put the skate into the pan and simmer for 12 minutes, then lift out and leave to cool. Strain the court bouillon, return it to a clean pan and boil vigorously until reduced to 570ml/1 pint. Leave to cool.
Lift the skate flesh off the bones and pull it apart a little. Put it into a bowl and mix with the parsley, shallots and a little salt and pepper.
Put 3 tbsp of cold water into a small pan, sprinkle over the gelatine and leave for 5 minutes. Heat gently until clear, then stir into the cool stock.
Line a 900g/21b loaf tin or terrine with cling film. Spread one third of the skate mixture over the bottom and pour over enough cooled stock just to cover it. Chill until almost set. Add another third of the skate and stock and chill again. Repeat once more. Cover and chill for four hours or overnight.
You can make the sauce in advance. Boil the eggs for 5 minutes, then drain and leave in cold water to cool. Peel the eggs, cut them in half and scoop the still-runny yolks into a bowl. Reserve one egg white (discard the rest). Whisk the yolks until pale and creamy. Whisk in the vinegar and mustard and then gradually add the oil to give a mayonnaise-like consistency. Very finely chop the reserved egg white and stir into the sauce with the gherkins, capers, tarragon, parsley and salt and pepper.
To serve, turn the terrine out onto a board and remove the cling film. Cut into slices with a serrated knife or electric carving knife. Put a slice on each plate, spoon a little of the sauce to one side and serve with a few salad leavesReuse content