It is winter here in Seattle. I have no idea if I can “technically” call it that yet, but when it gets down to 34F in the day time this not-so-hardy Englishman calls winter well and truly. Trees are bare, frost is on the ground, and I can now use my deck as as second fridge if I really need to. Yep. Winter is here.
Winter for me means hearty warm soups, stews, braises. Often enough this means meat, but in my mind fish should certainly not get relegated during these cold months. Take mussels for instance. Our local Penn Cove mussels are pretty great all year round, but even better during the winter. The colder water makes for a better tasting, sweeter mussel. I have to say, it is pretty hard to top a steaming hot bowl of mussels mariniere and some crusty bread on a cold day. Of course, if this is too light for your tastes, put some creme fraiche into the deal if you must.
When I am in the food for something with some gusto I find myself more often than not leafing through the pages of old cookbooks. Le Guide Culinaire by Escoffier has a great place in my heart, and can teach technique like nothing else. The Mrs Beaton (old British cook) cookbooks are complete gems, not only because they assume everyone has a couple of pigs heads lying around – but also because they give you very useful advice on how to deal with those pesky servants we all have these days (seriously, one of her books talks about how to deal and treat servants).
I am not talking about either of those, or even the fantastic Leaves From Our Tuscan Kitchen, originally published in 1899. Nope, I am talking about the fantastic Elizabeth David (again), and her French Provincial Cooking book. I have referenced this book many a time in this blog, and I can hope for one thing from this website it is that it makes people decide to buy this book. Incredible writing and cookery. Just brilliant. Written in a time when it was OK to write a cookbook that required TIME in the kitchen. That some recipes required attention to detail and a modicum of skill and technique.
This recipe is based of a darling little recipe from her in the book. Her recipe is for a base of leeks and tomatoes. She uses fresh, but for this stew dish I use canned (not just because toms are out of season, but they are more soupy and rich). She cooks the mussels to get the liquor, strains that, adds to the sauce, then cooks the mussels some more with everything else. Balls to that, I don’t like overcooked mussels, so I separate, and combine at the last few minutes – in my mind it keeps the mussels fresh tasting, and the flavors clean and distinct.
My fish is worked up a little differently. I like a nice crispy skin, so here I pan sear it skin side to the heat, get it crispy, then put that in with the stew just to finish cooking through – just a couple of minutes, and the skin isn’t in liquid (so it stays crisp). Little changes, detail switches, that make it more modern, and distinctly me.
For this recipe I use a great sustainable Yellow Perch from Lake Erie. Check out my Seafood Recipes page for a handy little guide to sustainable seafood. You can also go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium website to download a really fantastic wallet sized sustainable fish guide. My suggestion guys, is to replace that out of date condom in your wallet and put in something that will actually get used. The guide is really required reading, and completely indispensable.
You could use other fish here. Doesn’t have to be yellow perch. Any mild flavored fish that isn’t too oily would be great. A true or ling cod. Striped Bass, walleye, all excellent choices.
I like to serve this dish in little individual casserole dishes, but a big dish and a bunch of bowls are really just as effective.
(oh, and I am not normally one for mentioning where the fish comes from, but in the case of yellow perch it is important – Lake Erie is considered a sustainable source that is well managed)
Serve with a salad. Personally I am really digging a salad of butter lettuce, roasted squash (roasted with bay and thyme), all tossed with salt and pepper, thyme, and a balsamic/oil dressing (1part balsamic to 3 parts olive oil).
Lake Erie Yellow Perch, Mussels, leeks and tomato stew (serves 2)
3/4lb yellow perch fillets, or other mild fish – skin on
40 mussels, preferably small – cleaned and debeareded. (video on how to do that here)
2 decent sized leeks – white part only
1 small can of tomatoes (whole) (chop in a food processor to chunky consistency)
2 glasses of dry white wine
a good bunch of thyme – leaves picked and coarsely chopped
a small handful of fresh flat leaf parsley
2 tablespoons of butter (for the leeks)
1 tablespoon of butter (for the fish)
Preheat oven to 400F
Season the fillets of fish flesh side with sea salt and freshly ground white pepper.
Slice the white parts of the leek finely. Heat the 2 tablespoons of butter in a large pan. When foaming add in the leeks. Let these soften right down, but not brown. When they are soft pour in the tomatoes and add the thyme. Season with a little pepper (mussel liquor added later will give the salt). Add in 1 glass of white wine. Let this bubble away until it has reduced down a bit, and the alcohol smell has mostly gone.
Into a separate pan pour in the other glass of wine. Let this boil over a fast flame, and when reduced by about half toss in the mussels, and put a lid on them. Let them cook for about 3 minutes, then take the lid off and check them out. Start removing any opened ones from the pan. When all the mussels have cooked (opened), strain the mussel liquid in the pan into the tomato/leek mixture. Cover the opened mussels to keep warm. Discard any mussels that won’t open.
Heat the 1 tablespoon of butter and a good splash of oil in a pan. When this is hot, put in the fish, skin side down. Gently press down on the fish to stop it from curling. Sear the fish over a medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, until the skin is crisp and golden.
Spoon half of the tomato/leek mixture into the bottom of an individual serving dish that has a lid. on top of this place half of the mussels around the edge. In the middle put a piece of the seared fish, skin side up. Put the lid on the dish, and warm through in the oven, until the fish is just cooked through. The flesh will go from translucent to opaque, and should flake easily.
Serve with a simple side salad (like the one described above) and some crusty bread.