There is an incredible variety of fish available, each having its own unique texture and flavour profile. In the kitchen it is important to never overpower the delicate nature of the fish you may be serving. Cooking with a light hand in terms of seasoning and selecting complementary ingredients will ensure the fish is the star of your dish.
Understanding the type of fish you are cooking will help you identify the best method to prepare it. To generalize, fish come from either fresh or salted water, are round or flat and are either fatty or lean. Flatfish are typically found in salt water and are always lean. Round fish can be found in salted or fresh water and can be lean or fatty.
Fatty fish, like salmon can be cooked using either dry-heat – grilled, fried, baked – or moist-heat methods. Lean fish, such as halibut lend themselves to moist heat methods of cooking – boiled, steamed, stewed, poached – as these types of fish easily dry out under dry-heat.
In my opinion, the best ways to showcase the freshness of the fish and maintain its flavor, regardless of whether it is lean or fatty, is to poach it. Poaching is cooking something in a liquid on low-heat, just below a simmer – there are few or no tiny bubbles.
Building on last week’s topic of stocks, a fish stock is a more delicate procedure. The flavoured liquid used to cook fish has many names but simply put it is a stock with added acidity. The added acidity helps draw out the flavour of the ingredients and accentuates the natural flavours of the fish.
How to make a fish stock
Save all the bones and scraps from your filleting. Choose supporting vegetables that will not dominate or overpower the fish. I like to use onions, garlic, leek, celery, fennel. I prefer to stay away from sweet vegetables like carrots or beets and starchy vegetables like squash or potatoes. I use tomatoes for the acidic element. You can also add lemon or lime, but those don’t grow here so I stick to locally made vinegars that have a complementary flavour.
Fish stocks should cook for as little time as possible because the bones can disintegrate very quickly adding a displeasing flavour and make the final product cloudy. With that in mind, I first cut my vegetables in small pieces and sweat them out in the pot with a small amount of oil. You do not want any colour on the vegetables. Doing this will ensure you are getting the most flavour possible.
Once the vegetables are semi-soft, I add the water and fish bones or scraps and tomatoes. I also like to use mild flavoured herbs that will support the flavour profile of my final dish. Typically I include thyme, parsley, and bay leaf. Bring it to a boil, skim away any impurities, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for no more than 30 minutes.
I adjust the acidity with my vinegar when it is done. When straining the stock I try to be as careful as possible to not break up the fine particles of fish. Any aggressive action can make it cloudy. I usually use a small pot as a scoop or large ladle to slowly pass the stock through a fine mesh strainer.
In the absence of fish bones, try making the stock with clam juice.
Yellow perch is a lean, round freshwater fish and is the fish featured in the photo.
All of these ingredients are available locally through the winter.
- 2 whole fish or 4 fillets
- 2 medium potatoes
- 1 small red onion, julienne
- 1 clove garlic, sliced
- 2 leeks, sliced
- 0.5 bunch kale, finely cut thyme
- 1 small can – white beans (if using dried, pre-cook before making soup)
- 1 500ml can tomatoes
- fish stock
- Bring whole potatoes to a boil and cook until just done. Let cool, peel and cut in similar sized pieces. Keep on the side.
- Sweat onions with thyme, leeks, kale and garlic until soft then add beans and cook for a few minutes more. Add enough fish stock to cover the vegetables by at least two times, add diced tomatoes and simmer for five minutes. Add potatoes to just warm through.
- In a separate pan, poach the fish. First heat enough stock that will cover the fish. Ensure your stock is just simmering before adding the fish. Score skin on the fish a few times on a diagonal.
This will help it to not tighten up when it cooks. Add fish skin side down, cover and cook on low for a couple minutes.
- A general rule of thumb is 8 – 10 minutes per inch of thickness of fish. Once cooked, carefully remove the fish with a spatula and keep it warm in a small amount of cooking liquid. Cooking skin side down makes life a lot easier to remove the fish from the pan if you accidently overcook it. Add your remaining poaching liquid to your soup pot.
- Ladle soup into bowls, lay fish on top of the soup skin side up or down and garnish with parsley and celery leaves. Makes 4-6 servings.