Land of the Rising Sun? Maybe. Land of the Myriad Fish? Definitely. I’ve just got back from three weeks with the greatest fish eaters on the planet. And, with an anthropological appetite for joining the natives, I consumed anything piscine that came my way. Except whale sperm.
Returning to the UK, still in awe of the selection of sparklingly fresh fish on display in Japan, I perused the fish counter in Waitrose with dismay. For an island nation we have an inexplicable lack of fishy passion. The usual suspects stared dully up at me. Salmon, cod, mackerel, herring, haddock, sea bass.
One of the big contrasts in UK food culture and that of Italy, Spain, China and Japan, is that we – fickle followers of fashion – focus on a few things as opposed to opening our bellies to the cornucopia of available ingredients. So our fish counters (honourable exceptions like Steve Hatt and The Fishery aside) are full of the same fish. Go to any market in Tokyo or Barcelona and compare. It’s instructive.
Never the less, we do have great fish here. Under-rated and often over exposed fish like sea bass and trout can be wonderful if handled right. And then there are Turbot, Bream, Sole etc. And the mystifyingly underrated mackerel. King of cheap and wonderful food.
And so, in a moment of retro glee, I snapped up a couple of fillets of the Welsh sea bass. Farmed? Certainly, but who cares, at least it’s sustainable and (if well managed) eco friendly. There’s a reason this fish was everywhere in restaurants a decade ago. Firm of flesh and flavour, it is an easy win in the kitchen.
Frying suits this firm, tasty beauty. It adds a caramelised crunch to the fillet and, because it has a decent flavour, doesn’t overwhelm it. The lentils add a nutty base and welcome bulk making this a decent dinner dish.
It’s sweet, citrussy, herby sort-of-salsa that makes this dish sing. Full of fresh high notes it makes your tongue tingle. You could add basil and mint as well as the coriander. Maybe a few hair-fine slivers of Thai red chillie to really spice it up.
This is a quick, easy 40-minute supper to make on a week night that yeilds enough leftovers for a packed lunch the next day. My kind of dish.
Serves 2 with plenty of lentils to spare for lunch the next day
You can substitute pretty much any fish for the bass, just make sure it’s sustainable and fresh. If the fillets are really thick, you may need to cook for a little longer, but not too much. Dry fish is no fun.
This dish will also yield loads of left over lentils so if, like me, you work during the day, these will make a great lunch, Just combine them with any leftover salsa and a little more lime juice and olive oil and voila. A zingy, nutty fresh lunch.
2 fillets of sea bass
Flour for dusting
2tblsp olive oil
Salt & black pepper for seasoning
1 cup(ish) puy lentils
1 medium carrot
1 stick celery
1 medium onion
1 bay leaf
1 tsp veggie stock (optional – I use Marigold reduced salt)
1 ltr(ish) water
1 small Lebanese cucumber
8 cherry tomatoes
Small handful parsley
Small handful coriander leaves
Half a lime
A glug of E.V. olive oil
First make the lentils. Dice the carrot, onion and celery and sweat in a little olive oil in a sauce pan until they soften. Boil the water in a kettle.
Add the lentils and the bay leaf and turn the heat up. Stir for about a minute and then pour in the boiling water and add stock powder (if using). Turn the heat down and simmer for about 25 minutes until the lentils are al dente. Then drain.
Next, the sort-of-salsa. Finely dice the cucumber and tomatoes (you should have roughly the same quantity of each). Chop the parsley and coriander. Combine the veg and herbs, squeeze over the lime juice, glug over the olive oil and mix well.
Finally, as the lentils approach readiness, do the fish. Slice each fillet into three. Season with salt and pepper and dust both sides with flour. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan (I use a non stick cast iron one to stop the fish welding to the pan).
When the oil is hot, gently slide the pieces in skin side down and fry (without moving them) for three minutes. You may need to press them down a little to make sure the skin browns. Turn and fry (without moving) for another two minutes.
Pile some lentils on the plate, place the fish on top and spoon over the sort-of-salsa. Eat straight away.