For some, there’s something awfully intimidating about cooking fish. How do I know when it’s fully cooked? Doesn’t it smell funky (and won’t that smell linger in my house?)? Are those eyeballs I see?
But Josh Niland, an Australian chef who opened the seafood restaurant Saint Peter a few years ago in Sydney, Australia, is on a not-so-fishy mission to change the mindset around preparing and cooking fish. Sure, there are plenty of home cooks who can easily prepare a filet of salmon or sear some scallops, but there’s so much more to fish than the common varieties (and preparations). Enter “The Whole Fish,” Josh’s wonderfully descriptive cookbook, all about, well, fish.
In his book, he makes cooking fish so much less terrifying. With just a little bit more knowledge, Josh hopes that the habit of making fish at home will become much more ubiquitous, and that inherent fear will ultimately fade away. Throughout the book, he provides insight into the benefits of eating fish and how to scale, gut, store, fillet, butterfly, and cure a range of fish, including ways to utilize the generally untapped parts (from offal to blood). Strewn throughout the book are a wide variety of playful recipes, from a crumbed sardine sandwich to smoked eel and beetroot jam doughnuts, among others.
Related Reading: How to Make Perfect Fish Tacos
Take, for instance, his riff on an English breakfast. Dubbed the full Australian breakfast, this recipe highlights Josh’s innate creativity. Instead of relying on meat, he substitutes pork sausage for fish sausage and swordfish bacon, infuses crispy hash browns with smoked eel, and peppers baked beans with a smoked Spanish mackerel heart. The whole thing comes together with a fried egg, and, at Josh’s insistence, a Bloody Mary.
So for those of you who are down to take the plunge, read on for Josh’s excellent tips on how to properly source fish. Then settle in for a step-by-step guide to preparing a full Australian breakfast. After this, you’ll be hard pressed to find a reason to stop making fish.
The Whole Fish Cookbook, Kindle Price $14.39 on Amazon
Excerpted with permission from The Whole Fish Cookbook, published by Hardie Grant September 2019, RRP $40.00 hardcover.
One of the most enjoyable parts of my day happens in the morning, when I have a text full of fish options from my buyer at the market. This interaction with him is crucial in making good choices for the restaurant and butchery. In addition to this relationship, we also deal directly with local and interstate fisherman. This allows us to work in slightly greater volumes and also eliminates some of the (understandable) middleman costs associated with going through market spaces.
Conversations with fishermen throughout the week are also important for giving our team at the restaurant an insight into their world as well as their struggles, whether those are weather related or other unforeseen issues, as it helps us to understand the price value of the fish and why some fish just aren’t available in a particular week. Direct rapport between the chef and the fishermen allows us to educate our front-of-house team not only about different fish species, but also about where a particular fish has come from. It is a powerful thing to be able to tell a customer the name of the fisherman who caught their dinner.
Knowledge of the source of the fish can also inform us about its flavour profile. If you know that a fish has fed on crustaceans or seagrasses, then it can be slightly easier to recognise distinct flavours when tasting it. Understanding the flavour of a fish often aids in a better decision on what garnish to pair with it or even a logical method of cookery. Often, the flavour of a fish is described with adjectives, such as flaky, creamy or delicious, and not actual words that best highlight a potential flavour profile and which might encourage the consumer to diversify their choices. Too many fish have a bad rap for their perceived flavour profile and are thrown aside as inferior options.
Before any of this can be considered, though, we need to understand what it is we are actually looking for in regards to quality. Your instincts as a consumer should place you in the best position to buy an excellent fish, and the following details should all be taken into account.
A fish with a firm mucus covering and shiny coating is the first sign of a good-quality fish.
This is something you can check visually by looking at the scale coverage across the fish. The mucus of a fish was something that always seemed a mystery to me when I first started learning about fish. The mucus basically provides protection to the fish in the open ocean by trapping pathogens that would cause disease. Antibodies and enzymes in the mucus actively attack those pathogens to protect the fish. When an old mucus layer containing the pathogens is shed, it is replaced by new mucus and the pathogens are lost. Any visual damage or imperfections on a fish can suggest poor handling, prolonged direct ice contact or variable temperature control.
The eyes of a fish are a determining factor of a healthy, fresh fish.
A fish’s eyes should look bulbous, be risen slightly from the head and look moist, bright and clear. There are, however, times when a fish that looks spectacular in every other way can have cloudy, slightly foggy eyes. This is predominantly due to the fish being chilled too quickly post-harvest. Note: If you see a fish at the market with eyes that protrude considerably from the head, rest assured there is nothing wrong with it. This is an example of barotrauma, where a deep-sea fish has been caught at great depths and the large change in pressure caused by it being brought to the surface causes the eyes (and often also the stomach) to become more visually prominent than other species.
A fresh fish should not smell fishy.
As not every supplier or seller will allow you to handle the fish they are displaying, it is best to revert to your nose. Even the fish I dry-age for upwards of twenty days carry little to no aroma. The only smells a fish should have are a light ocean water smell sometimes comparable to mineral driven aromas, such as cucumber or parsley stems. If a fish smells ‘fishy’ with an odour comparable to that of ammonia or oxidised blood, then it is best to avoid it. Unfortunately, no matter how much culinary genius you may possess, there is very little that can be done to rectify a fishy fish.
Iridescent bright red gills are an almost guaranteed indicator of the freshness of a fish.
Fish force water through their gills, where it flows past lots of tiny blood vessels. Oxygen penetrates through the walls of those vessels into the blood, and, in turn, carbon dioxide is released. The redder the gills, the fresher the fish. Where slime and mucus are desirable on the outside of a fish, the gills should be slightly drier and clean of any debris.
NOTE: The perception question: red mullet
A good example of skewed customer perception towards a fish is red mullet. Already in a consumer’s eyes without talking to someone, a conclusion is drawn that it’s mullet and must taste like the earthy, muddy and often ‘fishy’ fish that they may have grown up eating. Contrary to this, knowing that the diet of red mullet is rich in crustaceans will give us the knowledge that the fish also has a flavour profile reminiscent of lobster, crab or prawn (shrimp). A conversation when purchasing fish with the individuals handling or selling it will help guide you in the right direction.
If your fish is frozen, look for freezer burn or crystals.
If you see them it means the fish has been thawed and refrozen, which affects quality. Overall, in terms of flavour and texture, fresh farm-raised fish is often preferable if a wild-caught product is unavailable and frozen is the only option. But if you decide to go with frozen fish, just know that some fish types do better in the freezer than others – lean white varieties, such as snapper and cod, tend to become dry when frozen, but the fattier types, such as tuna and Spanish mackerel, should be fine even when frozen. This list of freshness quality points may, at first glance, seem hypocritical to the work we do at Fish Butchery and Saint Peter with regards to ageing fish, but to produce profoundly unique flavour and texture profiles in aged fish, one must first find the most extraordinarily fresh fish and handle it well.
Finally, a word on sustainability. The topic of fish sustainability confuses home cooks and chefs alike. I see sustainability as a topic that requires a three-pronged approach. First, you need to be aware of the stock status of the fish species (this information is available online from your own local fisheries body). Second, you need to be aware of the practices of the fishermen who have caught your fish. Was the fish trawled in large nets or was it individually line caught? Finally, waste minimisation in the kitchen, which is achieved through both careful handling and storage of fish to maximise its shelf life as well as using the whole fish including its offal. This is explored further in the following pages.
NOTE: Dry handling
If you purchase your fish whole, ask the assistant to scale and gut it without the use of water. If this is declined then it is best to scale and gut the fish yourself at home. It is a common assumption that gutting and scaling a fish at home will cause it to stink for weeks, but if handled correctly, the fish will smell less than one that has already been washed with tap water and wrapped in plastic for the car trip home.
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Full Australian Breakfast Recipe
An ever-so-slightly healthier way to start the day…
Full Australian Breakfast
- 120 g (4 ½ oz) ghee
- 200 g (7 oz) grey ghost mushrooms or best available sea salt flakes and freshly cracked black pepper
- 50 g (1 ¾ oz) butter
- 160 g (5 ½ oz) Swordfish Bacon (see recipe below)
- 4 Fish Sausages (see recipe below)
- 4 eggs
- 4 x 1 cm ( ½ in) thick slices of rye baguette
- 100 ml (3 ½ fl oz) extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 curly parsley sprigs
- Heat a small amount of ghee in a large frying pan over a high heat and wait until there is a light haze over the pan. Season the mushrooms lightly, then sauté for 1 minute. Add a small knob of butter and some black pepper. Tip into a bowl and keep warm.
- Heat a little ghee in another frying pan over a medium heat and cook the bacon for 3 minutes until caramelised and crisp. Set aside and keep warm. Repeat with the fish sausages, cooking for 3–4 minutes until crisp and coloured. Set aside and keep warm. Crack the eggs into the pan and cook to your desired degree of doneness. Keep warm.
- Heat a chargrill pan over a high heat, brush the rye bread with olive oil and grill until toasted. Arrange on warmed serving plates, top with a spoonful of the warm beans, mushrooms, a sausage, bacon, a fried egg and an eel hash brown, then garnish with parsley. Serve with a Bloody Mary.
Eel Hash Browns Recipe
Eel hash browns
- 6 waxy potatoes, such as desiree, peeled
- ½ smoked eel, skin and bones reserved and flesh shredded with a fork
- 50 g (1 ¾ oz/ 1/3 cup) plain (all-purpose) flour
- 1 ½ teaspoons salt
- 1 ½ teaspoons caster (superfine) sugar
- 1 tablespoon skim milk powder
- 2 eggs
- 1 litre (34 fl oz/4 cups) canola (rapeseed) oil, for deep-frying
- For the hash browns, bring the potatoes and the skin and bones from the smoked eel, if available, to the boil in a large pot. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Drain and cool, then grate the potatoes on a box grater into a bowl, add the remaining ingredients and shape the mixture into 110 g (4 oz) pucks.
- Heat the oil for deep-frying in a large saucepan over a medium–high heat until it reaches a temperature of 180ºC (350ºF). Deep-fry the hash browns for 2–3 minutes until golden, then drain on paper towel. Season with sea salt.
Smoked Heart Baked Beans Recipe
Smoked Heart Baked Beans
- 100 ml (3 ½ fl oz) extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 red onion, finely diced
- 1 garlic clove, grated preferably on a microplane
- ½ red long chilli, seeds removed
- ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
- 350 ml (12 fl oz) tomato passata (pureed tomatoes)
- 400 g (14 oz) cooked and drained cannellini beans
- sea salt flakes and freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 smoked Spanish mackerel heart, grated preferably on a microplane
- For the baked beans, preheat the oven to 180ºC (350ºF).
- Heat the olive oil in a large pot and cook the onion, garlic, chilli and smoked paprika for 5 minutes, stirring until the onion is beginning to soften. Add the passata with a splash of water and the drained beans. Season lightly with salt, the mackerel heart and pepper and stir well. Bring to the boil, then tip the mixture into a baking dish and cook in the oven for 1 hour to reduce and thicken. Keep warm.
Fish Sausages Recipe
- 40 g (1 ½ oz) ghee
- 3 onions, finely diced
- 250 g (9 oz) ocean trout or sea trout belly
- 250 g (9 oz) boneless, skinless white fish (such as ling, hake, cod, grouper or snapper), cut into 5 mm ( ¼ in) dice
- 1 ½ teaspoons fine salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground fennel seeds
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped chives natural lamb casings, soaked for about 45 minutes
- Heat the ghee in a small saucepan over a medium heat and sweat the onion for 6–7 minutes, then cool completely.
- Dice the trout belly into large chunks and chill for at least 2 hours until completely cold.
- Blend the trout belly in small batches in a food processor until smooth. If the mix seems too oily, add a splash of chilled water to help emulsify. Transfer to a bowl and add the diced white fish and all the seasonings including the onions and herbs.
- Using a sausage filler fitted with an attachment wide enough to fit the diced fish through, add the sausage mix to the barrel. Force the mix through the filler and into the presoaked sausage casings and create 12–15 cm (4 ¾ –6 in) lengths, tying them off as you go along. Once a batch is made, hang them on hooks or spread them out on a wire rack to dry, preferably overnight.
Swordfish Bacon Recipe
This recipe for swordfish bacon relies so much upon the swordfish being of the highest quality. As when curing meat products, the greater the amount of fat, the greater the flavour. When at its best, swordfish has an extraordinary amount of intramuscular fat, lending itself so well to this style of preparation. The cure mix yields 140 g (5 oz) finished seasoning. We recommend using 120 g (4 ½ oz) cure mix per 1 kg (2 lb 3 oz) swordfish loin.
- 1 kg (2 lb 3 oz) A+ grade swordfish loin or belly, cut into 4 x 250 g (9 oz) prisms
- 2 x 14 g (½ oz) soaked hickory or cherry wood pucks
- 40 g (1 ½ oz) caster (superfine) sugar
- 80 g (2 ¾ oz/ ¼ cup) fine salt
- 1 star anise, lightly toasted and cracked
- 15 g (½ oz) thyme leaves
- ¼ teaspoon nitrate
- 1 tablespoon lightly toasted and cracked black pepper
- 1 fresh bay leaf, finely chopped
- Combine all the cure mix ingredients together in a clean bowl. Rub the swordfish with the mix until it is completely covered, then place on a stainless-steel gastronome tray or clean plastic container lined with baking paper. Cover with baking paper and refrigerate. Leave for 7 days, turning the fish every day.
- When the fish is cured, remove from the tray and pat dry with paper towel.
- Cold smoke the fish in a smoker for 40–45 minutes depending on your desired degree of smokiness. Alternatively, line the top of a double steamer with foil, add soaked wood chips in the base and use this to cold smoke the fish.
- Remove from the smoker and, using kitchen string, truss the fish, then hang on a hook in a fan-cooled refrigerator for 3–5 weeks to dry. Once ready, store on the hook or slice and store in an airtight plastic container.
- The bacon can be finely sliced and eaten as a cold cured item, similar to smoked trout, or can be thickly cut into lardons and caramelised in a frying pan for a great addition to peas and lettuce. The sky’s the limit!
Header image courtesy of Rob Palmer