As I said in my last post, we have a lot of sorrel from the garden. I described how we used it for a risotto, and to make a sauce for pasta. Another classic use for it would be soup – as mentioned in a reader’s comment - which I’ve been meaning to get round to doing but for whatever reason have failed to do so. I really must, and maybe finally get round to doing the feature on soups I’ve been (vaguely) intending to post here for a while now.
Another obvious use for sorrel, given its zingy, citrusy tang, is as a partner for fish. Properly sustainable fish of course. After the whole eel farrago, I feel obligated to feature the kind of fish that not only is it ok to eat, but that we really should be eating more of (of which more later…)*
Anyway, thinking about sorrel, as I was, and about fish, it occurred to me that something I hadn’t done for a while, that used to be a staple of mine, was some kind of fish under a herby crust. Which of course also used to be a staple of gastropubby, bistro-y kinds of menus up and down the land, and which – it also occurred to me – you just hardly see any more. Not, I think, because gastro pubs and bistros have entirely renounced the fish they used to herb crust on ethical grounds, because the fish are still there (on the menus that is, even if increasingly not in the sea), it’s just the herb crusts that have gone. Which is fine, the restaurant business is about fad and fashion as much as any other, but I hadn’t been consciously aware of following those trends myself, at home, in my own kitchen. I suppose, however, in the food we eat, as much as in the clothes we wear, we are all – at least the vast majority of us - followers of fashion, even if not dedicated, or even conscious ones. It’s just impossible not to be unless you’re a self sufficient hermit, growing your own food and making your own clothes.
Not that I could honestly claim that my decision to put a herb crust on a fillet of trout in 2011 was in any way an act of rebellion against the forces of fashion – a culinary ‘fuck you’ to Anna Wintour, if you like. I just thought I hadn’t had that for a long time. And it’s nice. Even if it does take you right back to the noughties. If not the nineties...
First I made my herb crust, or, to be honest, not so much a crust as a paste. In fact very similar in many ways – similar consistency, similar technique, similar sorts of ingredients – to pesto, but of course to call it that would cause purists to throw up their hands in horror. Many years ago, when Simon Hopkinson – who is in most ways I can think of an admirable, and by many reliable accounts, a genuinely nice man, but I can’t help but feel is something of a culinary snob - had the cookery column in The Independent’s Saturday magazine, I remember him waxing indignantly disdainful about any variation on the basil/garlic/pine nuts/olive oil combo of ‘authentic’ pesto. He also, however, described it as “that lovely, Ligurian, lotion” thereby painting himself so thoroughly into Pseud’s corner, that I feel free to scorn his disdain. Besides which, one could argue that as the name derives from the method of preparation (from pestare, to pound, or crush, the same root as our ‘pestle’ as in pestle and mortar) rather than the ingredients, then it would apply to any number of variations. Nevertheless, it would be potentially misleading to call what I did pesto, so I won’t. It was, however, very much in the pesto style. Or pesto-ish, if you prefer.
I shelled 75g (shelled weight) of pistachios (the one tedious bit of the process), and blitzed them in the food processor with 100g of sorrel leaves, the zest and juice of a small lemon, 1 big fat clove of garlic, a thumbnail’s length of red chilli, and just enough good extra virgin olive to get the consistency right (a thick paste, just like pesto). This made a lot, enough to thoroughly crust four good sized trout fillets, and leave at least as much again to keep in the fridge, which it will happily for a week or so, for use as, whisper it, pesto.
If you don’t have sorrel, then young leaf spinach will do the same job. And/or any combination of green leafy herbs. Swap the pistachios for pine nuts, and use just basil, garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil, and you will have made actual pesto. Simon Hopkinson would be proud of you (particularly if you’d used a pestle and mortar, rather than a food processor). The pine nuts would make it a fair bit pricier, but you could easily halve the quantities I’ve used above and still have plenty.
The trout I bought whole and filleted myself, because I actually find that an enjoyable and satisfying thing to do, and you get the leftover frames to make a tasty fish stock from. You can of course get your fishmonger (if you’re lucky enough to have a proper one) to do that for you, but filleting really isn’t tricky, as long as you have a good sharp knife – and if you haven’t, but are interested enough in cooking to be reading this, then I strongly recommend you go out right now and buy one. Either way, though, if you can, do buy your fish whole, rather than as pre-cut fillets. That way you check them out for freshness – bright, clear eyes, shiny skin, red gills are what you’re looking out for.
Once you have your herb or sorrel paste/pesto, and your fillets of fish, just lay the fillets skin side down in a dish, and coat their fleshy sides thickly with the paste. Heat a big enough frying pan, lightly oiled, on the stove, and when it’s good and hot put the fillets in, still skin side down, and fry them, without moving them in the pan, for a couple of minutes. Meanwhile, heat your grill. Once the skin side of the fish is done, and the skin crispy and golden, just whack the whole pan under the grill and cook the top side. Again, a couple of minutes, maybe three or four at the most, depending on how hot your grill gets and how close to the heat your rack gets your fish. Obviously you want the top of your crust to brown but not blacken, so it’s just a question of judging by eye. Don’t worry too much about finely judging the fish itself – cooking under a crust like this means it will certainly be done by the time the crust is the right shade of brown (unless it’s a very thick fillet, but is well protected from overcooking and drying out.
I served my trout with new potatoes just boiled, and dressed with a sprinkle of salt, a good grind of pepper, a squeeze of lemon and a grating of zest, a little olive oil, and a handful of chopped flat leaf parsley. Plain and simple. Just like things used to be in the good old days (of the noughties/nineties...)
Which just leaves us the question of sustainability and/or the eco impact of trout farming to consider. My understanding is that freshwater pond trout farms have much less damaging environmental impact than sea/sea loch salmon farms, for instance, and I’ve also heard that rainbow trout simply will not thrive at the same sorts of stock density as salmon (and brown trout not at all) thereby ensuring a better standard of welfare for themselves, so, all in all, farmed trout is a good option. I have to admit, I haven’t been able to back that understanding up with much hard evidence, at least not via the medium of Google. There’s lots out there telling me that salmon farming is bad, and wild caught salmon worse, but not much that covers trout at all, and most that I did find came from distinctly partial sources connected to the aquaculture industry itself (pro, funnily enough) or campaigning organisations like PETA (anti, would you believe), so I chose to ignore them and not post links. In the absence of any better, more reliable information, then I’ll stick with my original understanding – at least until someone credible and unbiased points out where and why I’m wrong – and continue to buy farmed rainbow trout as long as they look like healthy, happy fish. Not that a dead trout on a slab of ice is ever going to look actively happy, but you know what I mean.
*Next up, dab.