Friday, 9 October 2015
Autumn fish stew with red mullet, squid, radicchio, borlotti beans and bottarga
Fish are as seasonal in our waters as the distinct harvesting seasons for vegetables, and the traditional shooting seasons for game. Temperature and weather conditions play a big part, and the variation in catches reflects this. Late spring and summer sees wild sea trout and salmon migrating back down their spawning rivers from sea, and it is the beginning of turbot season proper. Christmastime sees peak molluscs; juicy, heavy mussels and sweet clams. The autumn is bountiful, and almost everything is in great condition as the waters finally start to cool after months of heat. The most visual sign of this is the tide of beautiful red mullet that start appearing, scale perfect and ridged as darts. In the shops we sell two different sizes of these fine fish; the small ‘fritture’, perfect for frying whole as a wonderful evening snack with a glass of dry wine. But the larger ones are worth seeking out, for crispy-skinned fillets and the soft, part-oily flesh that yields that unique shellfish flavour.
In the year and a half that I have been a fishmonger, this is the first time that I’ve managed to take advantage of this wonderful produce. My colleagues swoon as soon as they start appearing on the ice slabs, for many they are an outright favourite. Such special fish deserve a special dish, and this time around I made sure I was prepared.
A good fish stew recipe is worth its weight in gold. It can be quickly rustled up in order to create a special and crowd-pleasing meal when suddenly faced with many mouths. It is perfect when the chills start and the nights creep in, providing a deep satisfaction, and a radiator-like effect on the body. My version takes the last of the summer tomato harvest combined with soft borlotti beans and roasted radicchio leaves. I heard recently that we are losing our taste for bitter leaves and was saddened. They are an acquired taste for sure, but tempered with clever cooking and flavour pairings they are delightful.
A small packet of bottarga accompanied me back from Rome, and I’ve been grating little bits of it here and there whenever possible. I love it simply with braised greens, lemon and olive oil a la The River Café, but it also really makes clams, shellfish and in this case, red mullet really sing. It acts as a fantastic enhancer, boosting other ingredients whist imparting its own subtle and delicious flavour.
1 red mullet, about 400g in weight. Filleted and pin-boned.
1 medium squid, cleaned, scored and cut into strips
For the stew base:
The bones from the red mullet
3 shallots, finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 fennel bulb, finely chopped
1 tbsp sweet smoked paprika
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp dried oregano
1 star anise
1 tsp dried chilli
1 good pinch of saffron
4-6 ripe tomatoes, chopped
1 glass of dry white wine
750ml good chicken stock
400g tinned or fresh borlotti beans, drained and rinsed if using the former
For the roasted radicchio:
1 small radicchio, trimmed and quartered
A handful of basil leaves
A good glug of extra virgin olive oil
A generous grating of bottarga
First start off by making the stew. Heat a good glug of olive oil in a large, high-sided skillet or frying pan. When a medium temperature, add the mullet bones and fry until golden on all sides. Tip in the shallot, garlic and fennel along with a good pinch of seasoning, and continue to cook for 10-15 minutes, until the vegetables have softened. Stir in the dried chilli, fennel seeds, paprika, oregano, star anise and saffron and continue to fry for a further 5 minutes, until the flavours have been released. Add the tomatoes and combine well with a wooden spoon. Cook until soft and starting to dissolve and create a sauce, another 10 minutes or so. Raise the heat and pour in the wine, allowing it to boil and reduce by half. Finally pour in the chicken stock. Bring the broth to a boil, then simmer gently for about 45 minutes, until the liquid has reduced and thickened a little. Strain into a smaller saucepan, and discard the now spent flavourings.
Bring the strained stew base back to a simmer and pour in the borlotti beans. Cook until the beans have softened and absorbed some of the flavour, about 10-15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 200⁰C.
Arrange the radicchio quarters onto a baking tray and coat with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast in the hot oven for 10 minutes, or until the edges start to turn golden brown. Remove from the oven and slice the leaves into small, rough pieces.
Pour a generous amount of oil into a large, non-stick frying pan and bring to a high heat. When really hot, add the squid and a good pinch of seasoning. Fry quickly for 1-2 minutes on each side, until golden and crispy. Transfer to a plate lined with kitchen paper to drain. Keep warm.
Give the frying pan a quick wipe clean and replace the oil. Bring back to a medium-high heat. Season the mullet fillets well and place skin-side down in the pan. Fry for 3 minutes, and use a tablespoon to baste the flesh-sides with hot oil at the same time.
To serve, spoon a good amount of the stew and beans into shallow bowls. Scatter the radicchio and squid over the top, and pop a fillet of red mullet in the middle. Arrange basil leaves around the sides and drizzle over some good olive oil. Finish by grating over the bottarga and serve.