There is much to be said for buying what fish looks good on the day and devising a dish to fit, rather than trying to buy for a specific recipe and ending up with the mediocre and expensive. This was never truer than in Waitrose last night when there was a spanking but ignored bit of Cornish hake fillet on for £7 per kilo - a cracking bargain. I waited in line with my paper numbered ticket trying not to draw attention to said fillet and fully expecting my hake to be snapped up by another thrifty shopper. Nope - they all went for the big three (Salmon, Cod, Tuna) at nearly twice the price. Come on guys, give those species a break and try something else.
My commercial fish supplier (Channel) tell me that Hake is just coming into season right now off the Cornish coast but most goes to Spain where they love it. It's a great fish, very light in taste and texture and with an easily crisped skin. I've paired it here with an Italian sauce that is versatile in the extreme. It goes well with pork, fishcakes, oily fish such as mackerel or sardines, mozzarella or just toss through with pasta and parmesan. The legend behind the name is that Italian prostitutes used to knock up this sauce quickly between clients. The other story is that it has the attributes of a whore: spicy, salty, satisfies your hunger quickly.....and may be a little fishy! For four you will need:
Quality tin of chopped tomatoes - 1x 400g
Garlic - 2 cloves, peeled & roughly chopped
Dried Chilli Flakes - 1 large pinch
Basil Leaves - 1 small handful
Capers - 1 tbsp drained
Anchovy Fillets from a tin or jar, drained if in oil, washed if in salt - x3
Olives, stoned and roughly chopped - 50g
Red Wine Vinegar - 2 tbsp
Sugar - 1 tsp
Hake Fillets, scaled and pin boned - 4 x 150g
Baking Potatoes (Maris) - 4 large
Good quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil - 200ml
Vegetable Oil - 50ml
Butter - 1 knob
Salt & Pepper
Prick and microwave your spuds until soft (approx 12 mins) and allow to cool a little. Get a saute pan on the heat and add a generous glug of the olive oil. When the oil is hot, throw in the chilli, chopped garlic and chopped anchovy and fry for a minute or two until the anchovy begins to melt and the garlic turns golden. Tip in the tomatoes, capers and olives and cook for 5 mins on a medium heat stirring occasionally until the sauce thickens.While the sauce is cooking, scoop out the flesh from the potato skins and mash or pass through a sieve for superior lump free mash. Season and add the remainder of the oilve oil and keep warm.
A good tip here, in classic french cookery there is a vinegar and sugar mix called a 'Gastrique' that is used to give dishes a sweet/sour taste. The vinegar and sugar in this recipe do the same job and will lift any tomato sauce - add these to your sauce now along with your basil and remove from the heat. Season and taste your sauce - add more seasoning, vinegar and sugar to your taste and set aside for a minute.
Put a good non-stick frying pan on a medium high heat. When frying fish, you must heat the pan and the cooking medium (oil) before you add the fish. If the pan is cold when the fish goes in, the skin will stick. Add a generous glug of vegetable oil to the pan and allow to heat. Test your pan is hot enough by dipping a little corner of the fish into the pan. If should sizzle loudly but not be so hot that the oil is smoking and spitting when the fish goes in.
If you think you are there with the temperature, season the fillets on both sides and lay the fillets into the pan, skin side down. The fresher the fish, the more the fillet will want to curl. Push the fillets down so that the whole surface of the skin is flat to the base of the pan - use your fingers if brave or more sensibly, a fish slice. After 20 seconds or so the fillets will stay flat. Adjust the heat to maintain a medium/hot cooking temperature and leave the fish to cook for 2 to 3 mins untouched. Toss in your butter half way through this cooking time - the butter will give a lovely colour and flavour. Fish has a tendency to 'pop off' the pan when the skin is crisp and the less agitation you give the fillet until this point, the better. If your fish is sticking a little, leave for another minute. When golden and crispy, flip your fish onto the flesh side and turn off the heat. The residual heat in the pan will cook the fish through - in the meantime begin plating the dish.
Spoon a little of the warm sauce onto the plate, a generous blob of mash and the fish fillet on top. In my fridge (and illustrated in the photo below) I found a lonely courgette and a single chorizo sausage which I pan fried and scattered about the plate - please feel free to raid your own fridge and ad lib.