Smoked haddock, poached in milk, with onions and capers, served with mash and spinach, and, to crown it all, a soft poached egg, is, to my mind, one of the finest plates of food you could ever set before me. It’s a perfect marriage of several combinations of flavours and textures all combined. Several perfect marriages all going off at once. Like the perfect Moonie wedding, on a plate. Only problem is, with Becca’s dairy allergy also covering eggs, it’s a double no-no. We’re not having that for dinner at home any time soon.
I’m not complaining. The compensations are many, and anyway, while there is no real substitute for the poached egg, you can poach the fish perfectly well in wine, and given that I struggle to imagine the circumstances in which I am ever likely to choose milk over wine, in any context, that’s really not going to be an issue for me. And throw in a handful of clams - to compensate for the loss of the poached egg, if you feel the need to justify them - and you’ve got a pretty fancy looking plate of totally non-allergic (in this household) food for really very little effort.
There’s a school of thought that would, as a rule, warn against marinading fish. This would be on the, not entirely unreasonable, grounds that a.) the flavour of fish tends to the delicate, and you don’t want to overwhelm it; and b.) the acidity of say, lemon juice, or the alcohol in wine, will have the effect of cooking the fish while it marinades, and fish is easily enough overcooked as it is. As I say, not unreasonable, but in the case of smoked haddock, a.) the flavour really isn’t all that fragile; and b.) the effect of the smoking is already not that dissimilar to the cold cooking effect of acid or alcohol. More generally, I’d suggest, exactly because fish takes so little cooking, the ingredients really don’t end up spending much time in the pan together, and flavours take time to infuse and mingle, so sometimes it helps to bring them all together for a while beforehand in the form of a brief marinade. It’s a judgement call, but that’s certainly what I’d do here.
Take an onion and cut it in half lengthways. Depending on the size of the onion you may need both halves, but you don’t need much, so quite likely just the one half will do. Peel it and slice it thinly but not too fine, and lay the slices down as a bed in the bottom of a shallow dish. Place your smoked haddock fillets on the bed of onion, give them a big grind of black pepper and a tiny pinch of salt, then pour over enough white wine to cover the onion and maybe as much as half the fish. Don’t drown it. Leave aside for half an hour, while you prepare the clams and get your mash on the go.
To prepare the clams, rinse thoroughly under the cold tap in a colander, then leave to soak in plentiful cold water, changing that water completely and giving the clams a good stir and jiggle (discarding any that remain open) three or four times over during the same half hour your haddock is marinading, by the end of which you’ll have peeled your spuds and got them boiling and just about ready to mash.
Now remove the haddock from the marinade and scoop out the onions and put them into a shallow casserole on a moderate heat with a little olive oil to just soften, then pour over the wine from the marinade and add a couple of teaspoons of capers (rinsed if salted). Bring the wine to the simmer then add the fish and cover. The fillets will only take a few minutes to cook, no more than five – just about time to mash your potatoes. When the fillets are just done (the flesh opaque and bright white), or even half a minute before, carefully remove them (if not quite fully done they’ll finish off when you add them back at the end), and throw in the clams (about 6-8 clams per person should be about write). Replace the lid.
Now you have time to wilt your spinach – I like to toast some pine nuts in the dry pan first, and when they’re just lightly golden add a slug of olive oil and a finely shaved clove of garlic, then throw in the spinach in great handfuls – vastly more than you appear to need wilts down to meagerness in no time.
Lift the lid of your casserole and if all the clams are open, return the fish and mix it all up with a sprinkle of fresh parsley (if not, put the lid back on, obviously, but it should only need be briefly). Then serve the fillets of haddock with the mash and the spinach on the side and the onion, caper, wine and clam sauce over the top (picking out and discarding any clams that have remained resolutely shut at this stage).
Oh, and it goes without saying you’ll need undyed smoked haddock, the pale golden beige fillets, not the incandescent yellow stuff. If your fishmonger only has the latter kind, I’m sorry, you need to find yourself a new fishmonger.
The sharp eyed amongst you will have noticed that the dish shown in the pictures, the haddock is served not with ordinary mash but with fried mash. What is not apparent from the pictures is that this is a variant of bubble & squeak or colcannon, that is as far as I can tell, an invention of my own, although I can’t think why, or quite believe that I can possibly be the first to have done it (feel free to contact me to point out that I’m not*). It’s mash mixed with - instead of cabbage in the case of bubble, or spring onion in the case of colcannon - cauliflower. Caulicannon, if you will. I have Becca to thank for the coinage. It’s just half a head of cauliflower cut into small florets which were little more than blanched, then stirred into about 250g of left over mash and the lot fried like a potato cake. Utterly fantastic, and just one more perfectly matched element in the whole smoked haddocky affair.
* Further research has revealed that I am indeed not the first to incorporate cauliflower into colcannon, but, weirdly, most of the previous cases I can find are of Atkins inspired lo-carb freaks who substitute the cauliflower not for the cabbage/onions but for the potato! Plainly madness. I (Becca) am (is) also not the first to coin the term 'caulicannon'. Anyway, something similar is cited as far back as1872, according to this.