There’s nothing more satisfying for a chef than seeing and working with the freshest of ingredients and I still get a real buzz wandering around the market and looking at all those prime products, bursting with flavour. It really is a never ending source of inspiration when you’re looking for new ideas but, is it just me or does everything seem to be much more expensive lately?
The fish market is always the main attraction for me and it’s probably the easiest place to spot the signs of quality as it’s impossible to disguise super-fresh seafood. Here are the signs I look for when shopping for fish.
First of all, fresh fish should never smell strongly but have a faint aroma of the sea. It should look appetizing with clear, bright eyes and a shiny vivid skin. The flesh should always be firm and adhere firmly to the bone. The gills should be a bright red or a startling pink colour and the fins and tails should be clearly defined and undamaged.
As I wasn’t prepared to spend a small fortune on a whole fish, I found some very reasonablly priced cod fillets. Although fresh cod has a face only a mother could love, it’s white, firm flesh is succulent and delicious when cooked properly. The flavour is subtle and ever so slightly sweet and it’s a much leaner option than salmon. Like all fish, cod should be cooked with care. Do not be afraid of undercooking the fish slightly. Hold your nerve and you will be rewarded with flaky white flesh that still has a pleasant oily texture.
The “Merluza” (hake) was also looking superb and good value for money too. Hake, a distant relative of cod with a long sliver-grey body is a slightly underrated in some parts of the world but adored here in Spain. It has a good flavour and a soft texture with a similar taste to cod. There are many regional Spanish recipes including the strangely titled “caldillo de perro” (dog soup), a simple fish stew from Andalucia and in the north of the country, the Basques are particularly fond of hake and cook it in a variety of ways using the whole fish including the cheeks called “kokotxas” and with fresh clams, parsley and garlic in one of my favourite simple Spanish recipes “merluza en salsa verde con almejas”.
Merluza en salsa verde con almejas (Basque style fillets of hake with salsa verde and clams)
Ingredients: serves 4
· 4 hake fillets (300g each)
· 2 garlic cloves, chopped
· 100ml olive oil
· 2tbsp chopped parsley
· 500ml fish stock
· 20 small fresh clams, tightly closed
· 1tbsp flour
Heat the olive oil gently in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Add the garlic. Toast lightly and stir in the flour. Stirring continously but gently, add half the fish stock and bring to the boil for 1 minute. Season the hake fillets and then add them to the pan, skin side down. Cook for 2-3 minutes over a gentle heat, then gently turn the fillets over and add the clams. Cook gently for another 3-4 minutes, adding more fish stock when necessary untill the clams open. Remove from the heat and add the chopped parsley. Season to taste and serve immediately.
Baked Cod in a Pine Nut-Parmesan Crust with a light green asparagus-yoghurt soup
Ingredients: Serves 4
· 4 thick fillets of cod, about 200g each
· 100g pine nuts, coarsely chopped
· 4 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese
· 10 fresh basil leaves
· 1 clove garlic
· 2 tbsp olive oil
· Salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 425ºF (220ºC).
Combine the pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, basil, garlic and olive oil in a food processor to form a thick paste. Place the cod filets on a baking sheet and season with salt. Pat the pine nut mixture onto the salt cod fillets, pressing lightly to make it adhere. Bake in the middle of the oven for 8 minutes, until the fish is opaque and just cooked all the way through.
Asparagus and natural yoghurt soup
Ingredients: serves 4
· 2 bunches of green asparagus, chopped
· 500ml fish stock
· 1 large potato, peeled and chopped
· 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
· 200ml milk
· 2 tbsp plain low fat yogurt
Place the chopped asparagus, potato and onion in a large saucepan and cover with the fish stock. Bring to the boil and cook for 10-15 minutes and add the milk. Place in a food processor and blend to a fine puree. Pass through a fine sieve; add the natural yoghurt and season to taste.
To serve, Place the cod fillets in the centre of 4 warmed soup bowls, pour around the hot asparagus soup and serve.