Fish – lots of people are scared of cooking it. Maybe it’ll be overcooked, maybe it’ll stick to the pan, maybe it’ll look ugly or taste dry and bland. Also it absolutely has to be cooked last minute and can’t wait for other things to be ready so it can be really stressful to cook for guests. However, the recipe I’m sharing with you here is the recipe that changed all of that for me. In many ways it started my love of fish and taught me not to be scared of cooking it, so it’s very close to my heart. It was first taught to me by the lovely folk over at the Asburton Cookery School (which I can’t recommend highly enough). It allows you to prep all the fish in advance, controls the cooking time and looks really professional.
The technique is so good that when I worked in the Two Michelin starred Square they used a really similar method. In fact, the only problem with this recipe is I can’t come up with a name for it which sounds good – fish stacks, fish towers, fish parcels… they all sound a bit wrong – but that’s not really a big problem, is it?
So, what’s the secret? Well, it’s that old chef’s friend, clingfilm (which I grew up calling Glad Wrap). You wrap the fish and your chosen filling (I chose asparagus because who doesn’t love it during it’s annoyingly short season) in clingfilm and then steam for 7 minutes. Because steam is a gentle way of cooking, you’ve got a bit more leeway than you would normally when cooking fish and the clingfilm keeps the moisture in so it doesn’t dry out!
Before I extol the virtues of the fish any more, I want to tell you about the rest of the food on the plate and how to make it all in advance. It was even more necessary to cook everything in advance for this meal than normal, as it was for some friends who were coming round mid-week after work and my work ran on late so I was only home about 15 minutes before they came over. They are dear friends from university and it wasn’t until after one of them had wiped her plate clean that she let me know she doesn’t usually like fish and never eats it. I took that as a compliment but also as a bit of a “Come on Matt, pay attention!” moment.
I served the Lemon Sole with olive oil crushed potatoes, simply cooked sweetheart cabbage and sweet corn, and some sweet onion purée. The beauty of this is the night before I could make the potatoes and chop the sweet corn and cabbage so they’d only take 5 minutes to cook (or in the case of potatoes, reheat) on the day. The sweet onion purée is made by simply blitzing up slow cooked onions, which as you know I make all the time, seasoning and adding a touch of olive oil. I also made the fish parcels and wrapped them up in clingfilm. So in my panic stations of only having 15 minutes to get everything ready, I only had to take it all out of the fridge and get the pots and pans ready. So, as soon as the doorbell rang, I put the fish in the steamer (water already boiling) took it out 8 minutes later and simply slid them on to the plate. I made a quick beurre blanc sauce to go with it, but in truth it didn’t really need it because the whole dish was very tender and flavoursome already. One more little tip – make more of the potato and cabbage than you need because they make the most amazing bubble and squeak breakfast/lunch/dinner the next day! I just love the cabbage and sweetcorn mix so much – it goes brilliantly with pork as well. [A few people have asked me how to chop the cabbage like this, sp I’ve included it as a tip below.]
For the fish you can play with the combinations of type of fish and what you fill it with. I filled the lemon sole with blanched asparagus because I love asparagus and it has a very short season so I try to use it in everything while I can, plus lemon sole is a really delicate flavour so it doesn’t overpower the subtle asparagus. However, you can use any flat fish and almost any filling (within reason!). Plaice and roasted red peppers works brilliantly. If you want to push the boat out, the layers don’t even have to be the same, I’ve made turbot in the past with one layer of pea purée (find the recipe here) and layer of thinly sliced morel mushrooms – it was totally delicious. The fish does have to be a firm, meaty fish that isn’t too oily or flaky, though. Flat fishes are definitely best, otherwise you have to thinly slice fillets to create the layers, which only works with a very firm fleshed fish (for example monkfish could work, but I would rather roast that like in this recipe). Let me know your favourite flavour combination!
Lemon sole with Asparagus
- 4 lemon sole fillets cut into quarters
- 1 bunch asparagus stalks, woody stems removed
- Sea salt
- Olive oil
- 4 tarrgon leaves
- Blanch the asparagus in boiling salted water for one minute and then plunge into iced water until completely cold. Slice very thinly on a mandoline (or carefully with a knife)
- Take four pieces of cling film. Season the centre of each clingfilm piece with sea salt and lay one quarter of a lemon sole fillet on the salt, season the top of the fish and cover with pieces of asparagus. Season the asparagus and lay a piece of fish on top. Repeat the process until you have four layers of fish and three layers of asparagus on top.
- Place a tarragon leaf on top of the final layer and drizzle lightly with olive oil.
- Fold the clingfilm over the longer side of the fish and then repeat from the other side making sure it is tightly wrapped. At this point you should have a wrapped piece of fish with two holes at either end. Take the back (blunt edge) of a kitchen knife and squeeze all the air out of each end. Trim the “flaps” and fold underneath the fish. At this point you can refrigerate for a day.
- Bring a pot of water of water to the boil and place a steamer on top. I use a silicon colander as I don’t have a steamer and it works perfectly. Place the fish parcels in one even layer in the steamer and cover with a lid or foil. Leave to steam for 8 minutes.
- Unwrap the clingfilm and serve
Tip: To remove from the clingfilm, unfurl both “flaps” and place the blunt edge of the knife against one end of the parcel. Pull on the flap that is on the same side of the knife and the fish will slide easily out of the clingfilm.
Note: A couple of people have asked for the olive oil mash recipe – I’ll post separately about it and provide the link here.
Tip: Cutting the sweetheart cabbage like I have done above is called chiffonading. In order to do it, remove the leaves from the cabbage stalk and cut away the central stalk. Place a few leaves on top of one another and roll into a cigar shape. Cut the cigar finely across into thin ribbons.