It is no surprise that chefs are on a high car insurance premium; we all drive a little too fast, a little too aggressively, all a little too desperate to get home during our split shift, hoping against hope not to hit traffic so we can spend a few precious extra minutes at home before leaving for work again in the evening. Breaking hard and late, too close to the car in front, hoping that my front bumper will telepathically communicate with their rear bumper that they need to get out of the way. Not to mention we drink after an evening service before driving home, just as aggressively and just as desperately. If you ever see someone dressed in a way unbefitting on their surroundings, with the smell of food lingering around them like an annoying bug that can’t be swatted away, then chances are they were cooking your food just a few moments ago. All good cooking requires good timing, which is why finishing lunch service, cleaning up and getting home early is essential. You have to cook and eat earlier than a pensioner at an early-bird special before getting your sorry arse back to work and be ready for the evening service. You’d think that would be easy for a chef but we also fall into the pitfalls of convenience food and the irrefutable crap of Pot Noodles and pre-packaged sandwiches.
Fortunately, cooking well doesn’t require an exorbitant about of time and instead relies on a bit of common sense, and an understanding of simplicity. You don’t need expensive equipment; just a few good pots and pans, a chopping board, a sharp knife, and a willingness to actually cook well in the first place. First and foremost it is important to buy ingredients and cook food you like to eat. Some of these things will not be suitable for the quick turnaround needed, a good rule of thumb I set myself is, if it takes longer than an hour — don’t bother. As much as I love slow cooked casseroles with neck of lamb or other lesser cuts, it is not possible during a split shift. Anything complicated that I may have been working on mere hours ago is useless to me. No confit, nothing cured, no heavily reduced sauces, and nothing braised; the cookery techniques needed for such dishes become useless to me as I leave the restaurant and are driving home, as if recipes and knowledge are spewed out behind me with the car fumes.
I’d like to think that good food can be created by anyone, not just chefs and hot requiring you to work fifty hours a week to understand its concepts. In this series I am challenging myself to stop living of a diet of cheese on toast and cook and eat better than a chef at home really should.
Pan-Fried Coley, Potato Salad, Cucumber and Fennel
As an island we are pathetic when it comes to eating fish. We are surrounded by water and dissected by rivers, yet we eat only a few species, typically in guise of the national dish of fish’n’chips. Haddock in the North and cod in the South, while other excellent varieties are exported to countries that have a better appreciation of seafood and aren’t blessed with a close proximity to the sea. Coley is better value and almost indistinguishable from cod when cooked but is rarely seen and cod’s uglier relative, hake, is largely exported to Spain despite being predominately caught in the North Sea. Freshwater fish such as eel and pike are essentially non-existent in modern British cuisine despite having a history of being eaten here dating back to the Romans. I believe our own squeamishness is to blame — we demand the same variety of fish, filleted and de-boned, and that is what we are supplied. There is little point putting eel on a menu as very few would order it. Unfortunately for seafood, many varieties of fish have the bad manners of containing bones that are unpleasant when found with a mouthful of food, yet a poor reason not to eat fish alone. Bones are natural part of eating an animal, we are happy to eat a supreme of chicken with the wing bone still attached, but for some reason, fish bones must be avoided at all costs. Fish also has the unfortunate ability to fit on a plate whole, head and all. People seem to have become unable to eat anything that is looking back at them so blinded are we to the processed and packaged prime cuts that we are accustomed to. I wonder if people would be but off eating beef if the head were served alongside every sirloin steak.
Firstly, season the fish, preferably about half an hour before cooking. Not only does it improve the flavour but it firms up the texture which is needed especially for flaky fish like cod, coley or hake.
Here the cucumber and fennel is salted to extract excess water and to slightly nullify the harsh aniseed flavour of raw fennel, then squeezed and dressed with vinegar and sugar. Peel the cucumber and fennel using a peeler into ribbons. Mix with a small amount of salt and leave for about half an hour before squeezing as much liquid as possible from the ribbons and toss with vinegar, sugar and pepper. The idea is that the acidity and freshness from the cucumber and fennel will cut through the richness of the fish and potato salad.
For the potato salad, boil new potatoes in well-salted water till tender. Drain and peel them if you have the patience and cut into manageable pieces. I do not have the inclination to make a mayonnaise based dressing in the brief time I have, so use bottled if you wish. Dress the potatoes with the mayonnaise while still hot and add seasoning, sliced spring onion and chives and eat lukewarm.
Coat the fillet of coley in seasoned flour and add to a medium hot pan with a touch of oil and plenty of golden foaming butter which will form a crust when it makes contact with the flour, holding in delicious flavours, prevent the fish from drying out and give a wonderful crusted texture. Served preferably outside, in the sun, with white wine.