What’s the best sauce to serve with simple pan-fried white fish – ideally something quick and accessible?
When it comes to easy sauces for fish, you can’t beat the classics, says Tom Brown, chef/owner of Cornerstone in Hackney, London, one of our top young fish cooks. “The most time-honoured pairings are tartare sauce and black butter – or beurre noisette for posh – so I’d say Ken should go for a mix of the two. That way, he’ll get the best of both worlds.”
Fry well-seasoned fish skin side down in butter, then, before it’s quite cooked through, lift it out of the pan and put it somewhere warm to rest – like any piece of animal protein, it will carry on cooking in the residual heat – while you get on with the sauce, says Brown, a protégé of British fish jedi Nathan Outlaw. “Add more butter to the pan, cook until browned, then lob in chopped capers, shallots and gherkins – that’s the tartare bit – before stirring in a big squeeze of lemon and loads of herbs.”
Brown’s old boss Outlaw also recommends a variation on tartare: “But serve it warm,” he advises. Let down some mayo with a little tepid fish or vegetable stock – “One made from stock cubes is fine at home, but make sure it’s not boiling hot or it’ll split and you’ll have to throw everything in the bin” – then stir in chopped capers, gherkins, parsley, tarragon and chives, and anoint the fried fish.
Less traditionally, Brown swears by serving white fish in a cauliflower cheese sauce. Don’t all roll your eyes at once, please: the combo’s actually a bit of a revelation. “Sweat some cauli, shallots and garlic in butter until they’re all really soft, add cream and milk, bring to a boil, then stir in as much cheese as possible – I like a mix of a strong cheddar and parmesan – and blend smooth.” A good, firm piece of fish – cod, hake or haddock, say – works best here, he adds.
Jake Bridgwood, head chef at Mitch Tonks’ award-winning The Seahorse in Dartmouth, Devon, also goes for classic accompaniments, but being someone whose kitchen has an Italian bent, he leans more towards Mediterranean solutions: “You can’t beat salsa verde with fish, because you can knock it up while the fish is frying and it doesn’t need any cooking.”
Bridgwood’s version involves celery, green or runner beans, green olives, parsley, mint, basil and/or oregano (“Whatever takes your fancy and whatever’s in season”), some pickled cucumber, capers and a big splash of vinegar: “We use agrodolce, an old-school Italian sweet-sour mix of vinegar and sugar.” Finish with garlic and parsley oil – “That’s chef-speak for garlic and parsley wazzed up in a blender and stirred into oil” – to loosen it into a sauce. “It’s up to you how finely you chop everything,” he says, “but personally I prefer some texture, so dice everything into small-ish chunks.”
He’s also partial to a tweak on the theme, namely bagna verde (literally, green bath): “That’s a cinch to make, too. Soak two slices of day-old bread in red-wine vinegar, squeeze them dry, then add to a bunch of parsley that’s been blitzed with a clove of garlic, two salted anchovies, a teaspoon of capers and a couple of sweet-and-sour gherkins, and process again.” As with the salsa verde, finish with a glug of extra-virgin olive oil – “Enough to make it fairly fluid” – and you’re good to go.
Bridgwood’s other go-to partner for white fish is perhaps the easiest of all: “There’s almost nothing to it,” he says. “Just squish two blanched and peeled ripe tomatoes through your fingers into a bowl. Add sea salt, white-wine vinegar and oil to taste, and leave it to steep before stirring in chopped basil or oregano.” It’s just a shame that Ken, along with the rest of us, will have to wait for summer before giving that one a go.
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