I stopped by at my regular fishmonger the other day, with a mission to pick up something for a quick and easy light supper for two. I nearly achieved it too, picking out a pair of nice fresh looking seabass, and doing my best not to allow myself to be distracted by the sight of the head of quite possibly the biggest trout I’ve ever seen poking out of a small mountain crushed ice on the slab. The fishmonger took my bass, trimmed their fins and started descaling. “What’s with the giant trout?” I asked, just by way of making friendly conversation. “It’s a sea trout,” he said, looking and sounding more excited about it than he normally does. “Cool,” I said. “Are you going to be doing those regularly now?” He shook his head. “It’s a bit hit and miss,” he said. I cracked. “Is it too late to ask you to put the bass back and do me the sea tout?” I asked. “Not at all,” he said. And I may have been imagining it, but he seemed genuinely pleased.
And not, I have to say, because selling me the sea trout was going to set him up for life. He wasn’t winning the fishmonger’s lottery here: he was in fact charging less per kg for the sea trout than the bass would have been, and the whole fish came in at under eight fifty, which he was good enough to round down.
So I was pleased too, although obviously I had now failed in my original mission. It wasn’t quite Jack going out with the cow and coming back with a handful of beans (although I must say there was a certain magic bean quality to the trout, all silver and gold with a thick lipstick red stripe down its side), in fact it was more like the other way round: instead of coming back with a handful of beans, I had returned with a fish the size of a cow… Either way, instead of a quick supper for two, I now had the wherewithal for dinner for about six. Short notice invites went out, and though we couldn’t rustle up a full quorum, my good friends, and now near neighbours, Darren and Christabel were good enough to come round and help us out…
Far and away the easiest way to deal with a fish this size, that hangs over the side of even your biggest roasting tray, let alone any pan, is to make a parcel to bake it in, out of foil, or parchment paper, or both. There is an argument that if you just use foil it can impart a ‘funny’ (presumably metallic) flavour to the food cooked inside it, which I have to say is not something I’ve ever observed. Parchment paper will avoid any possibility of that (however slim), but is much more fiddly and harder to seal. A double layered parcel of parchment inside foil gives the best of both worlds, and also, which is the main reason I chose to go that way in this case, it seems to create a better, more rigidly structured parcel than just foil. For a fish this big that seemed important. Parchment paper is also, I have to say, more aesthetically pleasing than foil, for what that matters…
Line the base of your parcel, however constructed, with sliced red onion and fennel. In this instance I used a whole onion and a whole bulb of fennel, both being quite small, it could as easily have been half of each, entirely depending on size. Grate the zest of half a lemon over the fennel and onion, then squeeze over its juice . Add a few generous fronds of dill, plenty of salt and pepper, olive oil, and a glass of white wine. Slash the flanks of your fish and rub salt, pepper and olive oil into it’s skin. Season its cavity too, and line it with slices of lemon. Lay a line of lemon slices on the fennel and onion base, lay the fish on top, and line it’s upper flank with lemon slices. Another squeeze of lemon and maybe a splash more wine over the lot and seal the parcel.
Bake in the oven at around 180, for around thirty minutes (it may need a little more or a fraction less, depending on quite how big your fish is, although one of the several beauties of cooking it this way is that the penalty for overcooking is less severe than it would be cooking fish in any other way – the flesh in there’s going to stay moist pretty much whatever you do. Nevertheless, do try not to overcook it, and make sure you check it for doneness sooner rather than later, in the usual way, by sliding a knife into the flesh along the spine to see if it is opaque and pulling easily away from the bone. If so, it’s done. If not, quite, just reseal the parcel and leave it to steam in its own juices for five minutes more. If it’s a long way from done, obviously, put it back in the oven. My fish, weighing in at around a kilo and a half, took about thirty five minutes all together. When it is done, you should also find that the fennel and onion has almost melted into the lemon juice, wine and juices from the fish itself to make a delicious sweet-sharp sauce.
Unwrap the parcel and serve it up – you should find that the flesh of the fish just slides off the bones onto your spatula. We had it with simply boiled new potatoes, a salad of celery, cucumber and capers, and a bunch of watercress. Sea Trout just might be my absolute favourite fish - as big and meaty as salmon, with all the delicacy of regular trout. And free of the burden of either the ethical issues (as far as I have been able to find out), or the price tag attached to salmon, to boot. Or the flabby, flaccid, fatty flesh of a lot of farmed salmon that generally makes it not worth the hit on either wallet or conscience anyway. There was nothing at all flabby or flaccid about this sea trout, and it was fat only in a good way. A very good way.
The one fish fed the four of us, with more than enough left over to provide Becca and I that quick supper for two I’d originally set out to buy for. So the following day I fried up a handful of thickly sliced chestnut mushrooms, with a little garlic and chilli, then added half of the left over fish and fennel and onion sauce, topping it up with an extra splash of wine. That was plenty to make a sauce for a bowl each of linguine, again with a little watercress as a peppery garnish.
And there was still enough left over for Becca to take to work the next day for her lunch. It might not quite of been the feeding of the five thousand, but 3 meals and 7 portions out of one fish and eight quid ain’t bad.