Thursday, 15 May 2014

Salted hake with brandade, crispy skin, charred asparagus, wild rocket and brown shrimp

I was recently lucky enough to spend a glorious week in Barcelona and it inspired me no end. It’s probably about twenty years since I last visited Spain, and where that time I could mostly be found shovelling salty chips by a swimming pool, this occasion was a totally different ball game. As a child I would have been so bored traipsing through busy, smelly food markets but here I was in my absolute element. Endless stalls sold every ingredient imaginable, and Katie and I had many memorable evenings feasting on our bartered treasures. 

One of the things that appeared on practically every menu in town was salt cod in various forms, and I was desperate to recreate it's wonderful flavour into my own cooking as soon as I returned home. Instead of using cod however, I wanted to put a spin on the classic and replace it with a different white fish. Hake was absolutely everywhere in Barcelona, and I couldn’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work as well. The results were just as comforting, with an amazing intensity and addictiveness. Once I had a first taste of the brandade, I couldn’t help popping back to the bowl every couple of minutes for a sneaky bit more. 

My cooking always tends to rotate in circles of habit, and certainly at the moment I am really into cooking spring vegetables at a really high heat until charred and blackened. This works particularly well with asparagus, baby leeks and spring onions, achieving a barbeque-like taste combined with glorious al-dente texture and moisture. There isn’t much that doesn’t benefit from a few of these scattered on the side, and here it cuts through the saltiness of the fish to balance things just right.

Although not quite as vibrant as La Boqueria, my local greengrocers near Newington Green also keeps stocked up with fresh seasonal produce, making recipe development a doddle. I was looking for a final element to round the dish off, and the wild rocket was an impulse purchase that fitted in perfectly. Rocket is almost a clichéd ingredient these days, but this was very different to the bagged stuff that was made famous by Jamie Oliver a decade ago; these big leaves had substance and a proper peppery hit. 

It’s hard to make the main elements of this dish in small quantities, so you may find yourself with a bit leftover here. But fear not, the preserved fish keeps well and is a great accomplice to so many other things, from pasta to crudité. If all this effort seems like too much, you can easily buy good quality salted cod from your fishmonger and use it in exactly the same way. 

Serves 4


For the salted hake: 

600g hake fillet, bones removed and cut into two pieces 
1kg coarse sea salt 
1 lemon, zest only 

For the brandade: 

1 of the salted hake fillets, soaked and with the skin removed and reserved 
500ml milk 
4 tbsp double cream 
1 large potato, such as a maris piper 
1-2 lemons, juice only 
5 peppercorns 
1 bay leaf 
1 garlic clove 

For the poached hake: 

1 of the salted hake fillets, soaked and with the skin removed and reserved 
250g butter 

For the brown shrimp: 

100g brown shrimp, peeled 
1 tbsp butter 
½ a lemon, juice only 
Pinch of cayenne 

For the charred asparagus: 

12 asparagus spears, trimmed 
Olive oil 
Lemon juice 

For the crispy skin: 

The skin from the hake 
Olive oil 

To finish: 

1 handful of wild rocket leaves, washed 
Extra virgin olive oil 
A few sprigs of fennel herb 

To make the salted hake, mix the salt and lemon zest together. Pour a quarter of the salt into a large, deep dish and place the hake fillets on top. Cover with the rest of the salt mixture, making sure that the fish is well covered with no gaps. Cover with cling film and place in the fridge for three days. Once the curing process is over, remove from the fridge and rinse all of the salt from the fillets. Soak in water for 12 hours, changing frequently. 

Pre-heat the oven to 200⁰C. 

For the brandade, sprinkle a little water over the potato and roll in a bit of salt. Bake in the oven for about an hour, or until the inside is very soft. When the potato is nearly cooked, pour the milk into a saucepan with the garlic, bay and peppercorns and heat until almost boiling. When the milk is up to temperature, cut the hake into manageable pieces and poach for a couple of minutes until soft and cooked. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the hake into a food processor and mix into a puree. Take the cooked potato and scoop out the middle with a spoon. Pass this through a fine sieve and then add to the hake. Add the juice of one lemon, half of the cream, 3 tablespoons of the cooking liquid and a good crack of pepper and quickly blitz together. Taste for seasoning and texture, adding more lemon, pepper and cream as necessary. Transfer to a piping bag and set aside until needed. 

Lower the oven temperature to 160⁰C. 

Take the reserved skin from both hake fillets and scrape away any excess flesh. Pat dry with some kitchen towel and place on a lined baking sheet. Top with another piece of baking parchment and another baking tray to keep it flat. Cook in the oven for about 20 minutes, or until very crisp. Break the skin into large shards and set aside. 

Put a heavy griddle pan onto a high heat, melt the butter for the poached hake in a small saucepan and melt the butter for the shrimps in a small frying pan. 

When the griddle is very hot, roll the asparagus in a little olive oil and seasoning. Cook for 2-3 minutes, turning occasionally, until the outsides start to blacken, then transfer to a plate and squeeze over the lemon juice. 

Fry the shrimps in the butter over a gentle heat for a couple of minutes. Finish with the lemon juice, seasoning and a pinch of cayenne. 

For the poached hake, cut the fillet into bite-size pieces and lower into the butter. Cook over a medium heat for 2-3 minutes until just cooked through. 

Toss the wild rocket leaves with the asparagus at the last minute so they pick up some of the lemony, oily dressing. 

To plate up, pipe a few generous dollops of the brandade onto each warmed plate. Place on the asparagus spears and arrange some of the poached hake and crispy skin around and on top. Add a few of the wild rocket leaves and fennel sprigs and scatter over some of the shrimps. Finally drizzle over a little of the extra virgin olive oil.

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