Frying fish, said Elizabeth David, is something best left to restaurants. However, whitebait (in the UK, the small fry of herring and sprats, according to Jane Grigson), should you be able to get hold of some, can easily and successfully be cooked at home. How do you deal with them?
The first thing (once de-frosted, if bought frozen) is to rinse them in cold water, and turn them over in the process, as you may find bits of seaweed here and there, particularly if they are fresh. Then either leave them to drain, or pat them dry with a clean tea-towel. Coat lightly and evenly with flour, and season with salt and pepper. Chop some parsley.
Heat some olive oil in a large, heavy frying pan or skillet. You do not need lots of oil, just enough (about a millimetre in depth all over) to avoid it all being absorbed by the whitebait.
Once the oil is hot enough to be almost smoking, carefully (and it may well spit from residual water) put the whitebait in the pan so the fish are all separate, and fry quickly (around 2–3 minutes) until browned, turning them over once in the process (very delicately as they become fragile and break up very easily). Once they look done – as in the picture below – they need to be served straight to warmed plates, parsley-adorned, and eaten immediately: being small and individual, they cool very quickly.
Serve with either lemon juice or white-wine or cider vinegar.
Fish in the Mediterranean is not plentiful, lots of minnows and small fry, respectable-sized grey mullet at some times of year, and notoriously over-fished tuna. However, you can almost always buy, and apparently without a guilty conscience, coley (lieu noir) or pollack (lieu jaune). When British fishmongers’ slabs buckled under the weight of catches, coley and pollack were somewhat despised, the former being known as cat fish. Nowadays they are still around but better appreciated: supermarkets promote them, and they are used for fish & chips in place of cod.
Both have an agreeable texture and taste and provide steaks and fillets of useful proportions, hence great versatility. Fish and potatoes have no need to prove themselves as a winning combination but this recipe for the two baked together has several virtues: it is easy, quick to prepare (though needs a bit of time in the oven), delicious while not demanding many ingredients, and can provide left-overs (they sound more elegant in French – les restes) that make for delightful fishcakes.
The main recipe is as follows:
Baked fish and (new) potatoes
- 400–500 g (new) potatoes
- 2–3 cloves of garlic
- 1–2 sprigs of rosemary
- 1 tsp fennel seeds (optional)
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- 400 g fish fillets (e.g. coley or pollack or other white fish)
- ½–1 preserved lemon (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 7/220°C.
Scrape or peel the potatoes and cut them into small wedges. Spread these over an oiled ovenproof dish and lightly coat with further olive oil. Add the garlic cloves, peeled but whole, half the rosemary, the fennel seeds, if included, and salt and pepper.
Bake, uncovered, in the centre of the hot oven for 25–30 min, turning the potato over a few times. Now turn the oven down to gas mark 5/190°C and place the fish on top of the potato. Season it with the remaining rosemary, more salt and pepper, and, highly recommended if you can get it, preserved lemon, chopped small. Splash a little oil over the fish, and the potato if necessary. Cook for about 20 min, depending on the thickness of the fish. Serve from the dish. Baked tomatoes go well and can be cooked at the same time as the fish (see Olive Oil, Garlic & Parsley – the book).
For fishcakes next day:
Mash whatever is left over and, if there is not quite enough, boil and add some potatoes. Optionally, half to a whole chopped onion can be worked in as a further binder and enlivener of flavour.
Flouring your hands liberally, press two to three tablespoons’ worth of the mixture into a round flat firm evenly dusted cake, flour your hands again and repeat. Alternatively you can work them together with spatulas.
Brown the fishcakes in hot olive oil, making sure they don’t stick to the pan or you’ll lose the crispy coating that will form.
Serve straightaway, possibly with a sauce rouille and a crunchy salad, green beans with bacon, say, or vegetable, such as carrots with capers (see Olive Oil, Garlic & Parsley – the book).