Monday 3 February 2020

Pan fried cod with a pea and lemon verbena risotto

I was looking for an easy partner for a great piece of cod I was going to pan-fry* for friends. I mean food partner obviously. I suppose my wife might object to an 'easy partner' in the house. Unless it was for her. Anyway, sub-laddish bantz aside, I decided on a risotto. These can be made ahead of time if you only take it half way. They have almost infinite variety too; mushroom and shellfish are obvious choices but I've seen some made with red wine and chorizo. As this was to partner fish I decided on pea and lemon verbena as it grows in my garden.

*Funny that we always say pan-fry and not simply 'fry'. Why is that? Is it to create a clear culinary distinction between restaurant sophistication and a greasy spoon with its eggs, bacon and bubble? But fried is what it is. A delicious piece of fried fish. Pan-fried fish. No, the second one sounds tastier. Damn my pretensions.

Before we do the rice let's discuss the protein. Buy the freshest fish you can. It cooks better. It stays together. It crisps more. This means avoiding supermarkets; that stuff is old, flabby and usually unforgivable. Why supermarkets can't serve great fish I don't know, but they don't. Find a good fishmonger and cherish them with regular trade.

Take your fish out of the fridge an hour or so beforehand. Put it on a clean tea towel to dry it off. Sprinkle salt on the top and leave, allowing the salt to be drawn in and moisture to be drawn out. Don't fry wet fish. You'll be trying to Vanish out the oil spatter for many washes. I did that piece in the picture with a glug of hot oil in a very hot pan. Skin side down first. Turn the heat down to medium. Leave the fish it for a few minutes or it will stick. Let a crust form. Now add a knob of butter, let it foam and flip the fish. Spoon that lovely butter over the fish for another five minutes until you get a golden crust forming. Move the fish to a plate and let it rest, allowing the hot side to cook the middle. You want translucent flakes not cotton wool. Overcooked fish is death in the mouth.If you're unsure just prise the fish apart in the pan with a sharp knife. If it looks raw, cook for a minute more.Then let it rest.

Risotto should be a creamy affair, but not with cream. It's well massaged starch from the grains that thicken the stock. Ignore any advice to add dairy in any form other than butter and parmesan. It should also be liquid but not runny. The rice should be loose in texture and firmer than soft. I've never really known what al-dente means with rice so I won't use that term.

Risotto rice comes in three main varieties: arborio, carnaroli and Vialone Nano. The last one is my favourite but there's not much in it (half of Veneto will now leave angry comments!). Just don't use long grain. Most supermarkets stock Arborio.

As ever the superb Serious Eats has a page dedicated to risotto technique and the science of starch. Worth a read. They do advocate adding cream though. Ignore that.

Pea and lemon verbena risotto.
Serves 6.

Lemon Verbena. Almost impossible to buy. 
First off. Sorry. You won't be able to get lemon verbena unless you grow it or you live close to some impossibly posh shops in one of the London Hills: Notting, Highgate, Primrose. You know the type. So, sorry about that. You could replace with tarragon and a gentle zest of half a lemon. It'll be similar and delicious. I have a large LV plant in my back garden so I'm never short. I know: smug.

Bit of prep before we work with the rice. You'll need a stock. As this is a pea risotto, make a pea stock.You'll often use a chicken stock in risotto but that's the wrong flavour here and I wanted to make this a vegetarian dish, not least because my eldest son is now partnered with non meat eater and they're coming for dinner soon. Hi Meg.

Bring up 250g of frozen peas to the boil in a litre of water. Once they are boiling and bobbing about, lift them out with a slotted spoon and put them into ice water. This stops them cooking into sludge and preserves a vibrant colour. You know: pea green.

Return the pea water to a low heat and add: a bay leaf, a few inches of rosemary and some parsley stalks. Simmer for a few minutes then turn off the heat, leaving the herbs to infuse to make a light vegetable stock until you're ready to start the risotto.

Strain your stock and bring back to a simmer.

Remove your peas from the cold water and mash them up with a little olive oil. We're not making a puree here, just helping things along. I still want to see whole peas. Season with a little sugar and salt.

Chop one large, white onion into fine dice and fry in a 50g of butter in a wide, shallow sided pan. Add a tablespoon of crushed fennel seeds. Cook on a medium heat until the onion is translucent and getting golden. No brown though. Not the right flavour. Now add three finely chopped stalks of celery and cook for another five minutes. Add another 50g of butter, bring up the heat and stir in 400g of risotto rice. Stir to fry the rice for a few minutes until it too is translucent. Pour in about 250ml of dry Vermouth. I like Noilly Prat. If you have no Vermouth, an aromatic white wine will do. Bring this to the boil and reduce, stirring often. Now add about a quarter of your pea/herb stock. Stir in, 'massaging' the rice with the back of a wooden spoon to encourage the starch to mix.

Fennell fritter: the perfect accompaniment
At this point the proto-risotto be left until guests arrive or you're ready to eat. It takes about another 15 minutes from here.

Again, bring your stock to a simmer. Don't add cold stock to a risotto. Now spend 15 minutes pouring in the stock a wine glass at a time. Stir until it's absorbed and repeat. taste the grain. It should still have some bite. You might need little boiling water in addition to your stock. Once happy with the texture, finely grate in 50g of good parmesan (not so much as this is to go with fish), a few chopped spring onions and a handful of chopped lemon verbena or herb of your choice. Finally stir in the pea mix. It'll warm up in seconds. Taste and maybe season with salt. And hell, perhaps a blob more butter, just no cream yeah?

I served mine with a ring of pea shoots dressed with a little home-made basil oil. The cod goes on top. For a little extra crunch a bowl of fennel fitters works very well and complements both rice and fish perfectly.

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