I love fish, I really do, and I don’t eat nearly enough of it. I think that this is typical of many people, and sadly is resulting in the decline of fishmongers on the high street. This is slowly destroying the connection between the animal source and the finished dish, and it is worrying that future generations might purely associate fish (or meat for that matter) with a bland coloured lump in a vacuumed plastic packet.
When visiting a decent fishmonger, not only do you get to see the origins of what you are about to eat, but just the spectacle of the different colours, shapes and sizes is inspiring in coming up with what to cook. Many times I have been to a fishmongers with something in mind, only to be completely thrown by seeing something else that looked good. This just does not happen in the monotonous aisles of supermarkets, and even in the bigger ones with fish counters, the fish often look in a sad and old state.
Buying fresh fish can be quite expensive, and I always look at it as a bit of a treat. Fish like monkfish, turbot and brill are for very special occasions only. But in any good fishmongers there should be a wide selection of different fish on offer, to suit all budgets. Mackerel and mussels for example are massively underlooked and cheap, and are really easy to turn into fantastic dishes.
Fish selection is important, and there are a few signs that you should look out for to make sure what you buy is fresh. Firstly and most obviously, fresh fish doesn’t have that overwhelming fishy smell. Other good signs of freshness are full, non-sunken eyes and red gills.
Bream with crispy polenta, oregano pesto, chorizo and broad beans
The joy of cooking with fish is that you don’t need to do a lot to it to make it taste great. Although in this recipe the polenta takes time to prepare, the rest is pretty easy and quick to assemble. I always make too much of the pesto and of the polenta, as both make great leftover meal components.
I have chosen to use bream in this recipe because it is delicious, and the crisp skin and soft white flesh go really well with the other tastes and textures in the dish. Very similar to sea bass, it is readily available, sustainable and fairly cheap. I prefer to buy my fish whole and fillet them myself, but you can get the fishmonger to do this if you like.
The key to getting the skin on the fish lovely and golden and crispy is to make sure that you use a non-stick pan, and that it is hot when the fish go in. Always put the fish skin side down and carefully use your fingers to push down a little on the fillets for the first 5-10 seconds to help prevent the fillets from curling.
Serves 2 as a lovely summer meal
2 bream fillets, scaled and pin-boned
1 knob of butter
For the polenta:
1/2 a red chilli, finely chopped
1 large clove of garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
75g uncooked polenta (the quick cook variety)
For the pesto:
1/2 bunch fresh oregano, finely chopped
1 lemon (juice only)
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
4tbsp pine nuts, toasted
2tbsp pecorino cheese, finely grated
Extra virgin olive oil
For the broad beans:
300g broad beans, podded and shelled
1/3 ring cured chorizo, sliced into 1/2cm squares
First of all, prepare your polenta. Gently sweat down the garlic, chilli and thyme in frying pan on a low heat for a couple of minutes until cooked, but watch out that they don’t colour.
Meanwhile, bring the 400ml of water to boil in a medium sized saucepan.
When the chilli, garlic and thyme has cooked and the water has boiled, add the polenta to the water in one slow pour, using a spatula to stir at the same time. The mixture will start to thicken immediately, and once the lumps have been stirred out, return to the heat and cook for 4-5 minutes.
Once the potenta has cooked, stir in the cooked chilli, garlic and thyme and season well. Pour the mixture into a lightly greased, rectangular shaped container (I use a tupperware box) and leave to cool. During this time it will solidify, and once cold, cut the polenta into two rectangular shapes that will support the fish.
While the polenta is cooling, make the pesto. Mix the chopped oregano, garlic, pecorino and lemon juice into a small bowl. Crush up half of the pine nuts roughly and add, along with the whole ones. Pour in enough olive oil to make the mixture quite loose, and season well. Tasting at this point is important, you may want to add more of any of the ingredients to make it just right.
Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC, and take your fish fillets out of the fridge at least 15 minutes before you plan on cooking them
Heat a medium non-stick frying pan to a medium-high heat, and add a good glug of vegetable oil. When hot, add your polenta rectangles and cook on each side until they go crispy round the edges. Transfer to a baking tray and put in the oven to keep warm.
At the same time as the polenta rectangles are frying, heat a frying pan or saucepan on a medium heat with a small amount of vegetable oil, and add the chorizo. When it starts to crisp a little, add the broad beans and turn the heat to low. Season well.
Once the polenta is in the oven and chorizo and beans are slowly ticking over, it is time to cook the bream fillets. Put a large non-stick frying pan on a medium-high heat, and add a good glug of vegetable oil. When hot, season the fillets well and place them skin-side down in the pan, holding them down carefully for about 10 seconds. Cook the fish for 4-5 minutes on the skin side, checking the colour of the skin occasionally and adjusting the heat. While this is happening, use a metal teaspoon to baste each fillet continuously with the hot oil in the pan, running the hot back of the spoon along the fillets as you do. This will cook both sides of the fish at once, and will give the flesh a lovely pure white colour and really soft texture, while the skin protects the flesh from the direct heat of the pan. After 4-5 minutes the skin will be crisp and the flesh will be cooked, so remove the pan from the heat and add the knob of butter.
To plate up, place the polenta in the middle of the plate, and scatter the chorizo and broad beans around it. Carefully place the fish skin side up on top of the polenta, and drizzle a tablespoon of the pesto on top of each. You are now ready to go!
The best thing about this dish is how flexible it is. If you can’t get bream, any white fish will work, although try and choose one which has the skin still attached. Similarly, the oregano can be swapped for traditional basil, and the chorizo for bacon.
Restaurant Review - The Island Queen, Islington
This review is short, and is mostly here to express my delight at stumbling into a pub at 2.30pm on Saturday and finding that a brunch menu was in service. As I work on Saturdays until the early afternoon, I often miss out on weekend breakfast trips, so I was very pleased to find that I could still have my breakfast experience well into the afternoon and accompanied by a much needed pint.
I was also sitting in a very lovely pub. The Island Queen is tucked away in the maze of well-to-do streets between the bustle of Upper Street and the canal, and you wouldn’t know it was there unless you were looking. Well furnished and welcoming, it is the ideal place if you are looking to spend an hour of two somewhere relaxing reading the papers.
The atmosphere is the thing that makes this pub work, the place has a busy bustle to it whilst being serene at the same time. The staff were charming, and happily topped up my pint when I asked. The prices for drinks on the other hand are hideous, and I will always shudder before parting with the best part of a fiver for a pint. Especially one not quite filled up properly.
The menu looks like good pub fare on paper; eggs benedict, traditional and vegetarian breakfasts along with wild mushrooms here and potted something there. In execution however it was a slight disappointment. I was still overjoyed at my breakfast, but I think that I would have been just as overjoyed at receiving the same in an average greasy spoon. My sausage and black pudding had long been forgotten, to the point that ‘well caramelised’ had flown well and truly out of the window. The egg was basically deep fried and hard yoked, and the beans were just beans. With the build up from the menu, I had hoped for something that didn’t resemble Heinz. The saving grace was the addition of bubble and squeak. I really don’t know why it doesn’t appear on other menus more often, when most of the time when cooked at home it’s the best bit.
This all sounds a bit doom and gloom, and perhaps unfairly as I ate it all, and everything tasted like a breakfast should. It was just that it didn’t seem to have been made with very much care. It is a nice pub, and the other food that people were eating also looked lovely (I had moments of food envy), so I would tell others to give it a try. The menu certainly looked nice, and on its day I’m sure (and hope) it’s just as much a treat as the surroundings you sit in.