In my plaice
This weekend (am I the only person that says this weekend when they mean the weekend just past, as well as referring to the upcoming weekend? Confusing, I know) I bought some fish. Fairly unexciting I know, but given my fish usually comes in neat chunks in a double plastic-wrapped tray, this was quite adventurous as I bought it from the market. I figured if I was going to buy mussels I should make the trip worthwhile and get some fish as well. Not wanting to look like a fishmonger virgin, I hastily scanned the blackboard to see what they had, seized upon the word “fillet” and asked for some plaice fillet please, whilst pointing at a long, thin fish that may or may not have been a trout. Fortunately I was too busy trying to calculate how much a fillet that can feed two people costs if it’s £15.90 a kilo (£3.80, apparently) and didn’t catch too many of the fishmonger’s odd looks as he picked up half a flat fish, with orange spots on its skin. Ahhhhh yes, that’s what a plaice is. I didn’t dare ask him what to do with it once I got it home, since honestly it wasn’t what I had imagined buying. What, exactly, I had thought I would come home with I wasn’t entirely sure.
After a quick rearranging of my expectations I decided to do what I always do with bits of fish I’m a little unsure about, and after pin-boning it (thanks Masterchef! I now have an old pair of tweezers in my kitchen drawers specifically for this purpose) and snipping the fillet in half I sprinkled each piece with a little salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon juice, wrapped them in parchment paper packets, and bunged ’em in the oven for 20 minutes. Sorted. The best bit about this method of cooking is it’s called en papillote, which sounds super posh and fancy, and no-one will ever know you do it just to cut down on washing up. Panicking slightly as to how to make this into an appetising meal I decided to make a quick lemon Hollandaise sauce to go with it. I have since discovered there are reams of literature on how to make the perfect Hollandaise. Fortunately, over the summer a wonderful German chef taught me how to make Hollandaise and it really is the simplest thing. Simply whisk an egg yolk with some lemon and a pinch of salt in a saucepan over a low heat (I should add this is the cheat’s version – you’re supposed to use a bain marie but I rarely do, for anything). Once it has thickened up, gradually pour in the melted butter, whisking as you go, check for seasoning and voila. Simples. The only problem with doing this straight over the hob, rather than in a bain marie, is you may heat your sauce a little too quickly and it can start to separate. Ruhlman, bless his soul, has the answer. If your sauce starts to separate (as mine did, fairly comprehensively), simply whisk in a teaspoon of cold water. Don’t ask me how it works, or exactly what mechanism is behind this magic. My instinct is to think that adding cold water to a breaking sauce would just compound the problem but somehow it works like a dream and my sauce was light, creamy and perfectly emulsified, making me look like a total cooking genius. Result.
I served the fish with some fresh squash. This was so sweet it needed nothing more than some butter and salt and can be eaten like a baked potato, scraped out from the skin. It is best cooked exactly like a baked potato too; after half an hour in the oven it was still only half-cooked so I popped it in the microwave for seven minutes and it was done to perfection. At this time of year remember to save the seeds from all the squashes you’re eating too; dried out in the oven and seasoned with salt and cayenne they make a delicious pre-dinner snack.
Plaice en papillote with lemon hollandaise and butternut squash
1 large plaice fillet (half a fish, 250-300g) per 2 people; I used a bit less and it wasn’t quite enough.
Juice of half a lemon
1 tablespoon light olive oil
Salt and pepper
Juice of half a lemon
1 egg yolk
Pinch of salt
1 small butternut squash
Pinch of cayenne or paprika
1. Preheat the oven to 180 C.
2. Remove any bones from the plaice fillet and cut in half down the centre. Sprinkle each piece lightly with salt and pepper and place on a large piece of parchment. Add the juice of half a lemon, and a splash of light olive oil, then fold the top of the packet over, and tuck the ends under, so it forms a sealed envelope. Cook in the oven for 25 minutes, or until fish falls apart when prodded.
3. Carefully slice the squash in half. Scoop out the seeds and membrane with a dessert spoon. Separate the membrane and discard it. Lay the seeds on a small baking tray, sprinkle with salt and a little paprika and cook in the oven for 5 minutes. Toss halfway through baking so they are toasted on all sides and covered in flavour. Remove from oven and allow to cool before snacking on them.
4. Rub the halves of the squash with butter and put a small knob of butter in the hollow of each half. Sprinkle salt over the squash, then place on a microwavable plate, cut side up, in the microwave on full power for 10-12 minutes, or until a fork can easily pierce the flesh in the centre of the squash.
5. In a small saucepan pour the juice of half a lemon and a small pinch of salt. Add an egg yolk and whisk over a low heat until the yolk is thick, pale and creamy. Melt the butter in a small bowl in the microwave and skim off the white solids that will float to the top (don’t worry about getting all of them). Add the melted butter a drop at a time to the egg yolk, beating all the while for the first 20 seconds, then pour in to the saucepan in a slow steady stream. Keep the heat low and keep beating until all the butter is added. If the sauce looks like it might be splitting, beat in a teaspoon of cold water. Check the seasoning again and serve over the fish.
Serves 2. I’m certain there are prettier ways to present this than I did, but in fairness I was very hungry at the time.