Spaghetti with hake roe (huevas de merluza)

Spaghetti with hake roe (huevas de merluza).

05-03-2020Lydia E. Corral

Nowadays I am a one meal per day man. When I eat lunch, which is on most days of the week, I have very little at night. Sometimes my evening meal is only a little fruit and occasionally two small slices of toast with a topping of some kind.

On the days when I have dinner as the main meal, the process is reversed but with a big difference — my light lunch has to be something cooked and served on a plate and eaten with a knife and fork.

It’s purely psychological: if I don’t have a plate in front of me and a knife and fork in my hands, it’s as if I haven’t eaten anything. I feel hungry all afternoon and cannot concentrate.

So on those days when I’m having dinner, I am always on the lookout for something light that can be cooked in a few minutes. I have several favourites that get repeated on a regular basis.

Chicken livers are ideal: I sauté them over a high heat so they remain pink on the inside with slightly charred exteriors. Served on toast or fried bread, with nothing but a sprinkling of Maldon salt flakes and a little black pepper, they fit the bill perfectly.

Lamb’s kidneys, about eight times as expensive as chicken livers, also make delicious morsels, but I eat them less frequently because of their sky-high price. Thinly sliced lamb’s or calf’s liver also make a special treat for a light lunch.

Fish of all kinds, especially the cheaper Mediterranean specimens cleaned and filleted, are ideal for simple lunches. The large filleted sardines from the Cantabrian Sea at El Corte Inglés are very special. I coat them with flour and sauté them lightly in butter. Three served with brown bread and butter are a princely pleasure.

Another favourite I never tire of is hake roe (huevas de merluza). It’s the only kind of roe I see on sale and I make the most of it. The only two places I know of that always have fresh hake roe are the supermarket of El Corte Inglés and a stall on the central aisle of the Mercat d’Olivar fish section.

The price varies nowadays from €14-€22 a kilo, but I have seen it as low as €12 and as high as €32. A small portion that is enough for a light lunch (also with brown bread and butter) costs just over €2. It’s not an expensive treat.

There are two kinds of roe: the hard and the soft. The hard roes are the eggs of the female fish and they are like minute pearls, such as those of caviar, the roe of the sturgeon. You also find this kind of roe in salmon and other big fish.

Hard roes can be eaten as they are: extracted from the fish and packed into jars without any kind of processing except the addition of a little salt. Sometimes the hard roes are well salted, pressed tightly, and dried until they become as hard as a well-aged Spanish chorizo. It is then thinly sliced and served as part of a seafood starter.

It is generally thought that soft roes are also the eggs of the female fish, but they are the exact opposite: the sperm of the male. The soft roes, also called milt in English and lechas in Spanish, are contained in very fine sacs, two per fish. They are usually narrow and elongated.

I find them most frequently in sardines, mackerel, and blue whiting, called bacaladilla in Spanish and maire in Catalan. The two pieces of soft roe, which are always lying next to each other, should be quickly rinsed under the tap. The very fine blood vessel running down one side should be taken off. They are then ready to use.

When I clean a kilo of sardines or mackerel I separate the soft roes, sauté them gently in butter for a few seconds and place them on slices of toast or fried bread and sprinkle them with black pepper.

They are delish this way, especially if the toast is spread with butter or the bread is fried in it. My son has fond memories from the age of five of eating sardine roes on fried bread that I served as a little impromptu tapa as I prepared lunch. But the vast majority of housewives don’t do that: the soft roes go into the garbage bin along with the rest of the innards. That’s a pity because the soft roes are easily separated from the rest of the innards and, as described above, they make a free and epicurean topping.

But if you buy fresh hake you don’t usually find the soft roes. As they are much bigger, the fishmonger extracts them and sells them separately or takes them home for her own use.

Soft hake roes, and all other soft roes, are best when lightly sautéed in butter. Even the finest virgen extra olive oil is too harsh for them. They definitely need the creamy unctuosity of butter.

Although I prefer the soft roes of sardines, mackerel and similar fish done in butter, you can also poach them in a court bouillon of water, lemon juice, butter and salt. The roes of the smaller fish need only 15-20 seconds, but hake roes take somewhat longer, depending on size.

Cheese and soft roes have a great affinity. Try sautéing them in butter, laying them on a well-buttered slice of toast and sprinkling them with the grated hard cheese of your choice. The Italian grana padano, always available at Mercadona, and the Basque idiazabal, do the job nicely. You can also serve soft roes on fingers of puff pastry flavoured with grated cheese.

The Italians arrange poached hake roes on a bed of puréed spinach, nap each roe with a cheese-flavoured white sauce and put the dish under the grill until the surface is golden.

The hake roes at El Corte Inglés and the Mercat d’Olivar can be used in any recipe for soft roes, but as they are bigger and thicker than most of the others, they need longer cooking times.

But be careful never to overcook them. All roes are as much a texture as a taste and it is important they are just cooked through and remain softish. Overcooked roes lose a great deal of their flavour and their exquisite loose texture is completely ruined.

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