There’s something about fish on the bone that really works.
I know some folks don’t like seeing the remains of an entire animal on their plate, but the Dustbin of History awaits them. Such squeamishness betokens a deeper malaise – as they watch us inhale our quails and spatchcocks and whitebait, you can rest assured that they hate us for our freedoms. Just watch them is all I’m saying. Have you noticed that their eyes are too far apart? QED.
Anyway, strolling through the Queen Vic markets with my Lady Friend one day, bratwurst roll in hand, sauerkraut and mustard in my moustache, we happened across a mighty shoal of wee little leatherjackets. Now back when I was a kid in WA, this family of fish (or genus?…. um… *googles*…genus! – Meuschenia) were rightly prized for their succulent flesh, and as a bonus their eponymous skin could be sun-cured to make crappy, stinking wallets for sweetly indulgent relatives to discreetly bin.
Over in the southwest of WA, though, people wouldn’t keep them under 25cm or so, on pain of a humiliating public upbraiding from one of those self-styled enforcers from the Angling Gestapo (guilty as charged, m’lud). These critters at the Vic were weeny little things, maybe 15cm long, and half of that the head. So me and the LF put our heads together, and devised the following recipe, fashioned from our shared love of seafood and citrus, mine of saffron and hers of low-fat meals. The only other bit of food writing I’ve ever done was entitled Cooking With Fat, so I hope you can all appreciate my generosity of spirit on this last point. Anyway, on with the show…
Ingredients to serve two:
- 6-12 Wee Little Fishies. Exact number depends on size, flesh yield (that of a leatherjacket being pretty low) and what you’ll be eating with them. Substitute any little fish as long as it’s not oily I don’t think this would really work with sardines, but you never know…
- 1 ruby grapefruit
- 2 limes
- 2 oranges
- 1 metric bunch coriander, with roots ZOMG I HATE IT WHEN THEY CUT THE ROOTS OFF AARGH!!!!1! You’ll want about 2 or 3 average sized whole plants per person
- 1 shitload saffron (a wise man once said… *googles*… sorry, Norman Douglas once said “a man who is stingy with saffron is capable of seducing his own grandmother”, and [partly, I must say, out of respect for the dead] I have adopted this as a personal motto)
- 1 glass dry white wine – sauvignon blanc is ideal
- A certain amount of sugar
- An equally certain, but certainly not equal amount of fish sauce
- Whatever you need for accompaniment – we had steamed jasmine rice, chilli relish and a shredded salad of wombok cabbage, daikon and carrot with rice vinegar and sesame oil
Okay, now if you’re using leatherjackets, they’ll need to be skinned and beheaded. This will usually be done already by the ‘monger, but if you’ve caught them yourself it’s not that hard. This is however not the time or the place for a tutorial. Be a darling and keep the heads if you DIY, as failure to make stock makes baby Jeebus cry.
They’ll also need the guts removed, so do this before you start, wash the kitchen and go again with a clean slate. Oh, and give the sides a coupla of diagonal slashes to admit flavours and impede curlup.
Next, grate the zest off the grapefruit and one of the limes, then juice all the citrus.
Put the saffron in a small saucepan, dry, and toast gently until the stamens start to darken and everything smells fucking fantastic. Remove from heat, give them a bit of a crushing with the back of your spoon, then pour in the citrus products and wine. Smash up the coriander roots a bit, and put them in too. Leave this to simmer and reduce to about half the original volume.
While the liquid does its thang, heat up a wok with some light oil, then briefly fry each side of each fish, lightly floured, 2 or 3 at a time. You don’t want them fully cooked through, just crisped up a bit. Remove excess oil using your preferred method.
Once they’re all done, check the sauce. Tastes really fucking sour, right? Remedy this to your taste with sugar, then add fish sauce to your liking. Turn down the heat on the wok and put all the fish back in, top with coarsely chopped coriander greens, then spoon over the sauce. Cover and heat gently for about 5 mins, occasionally lifting the lid and spooning sauce over the fish. Don’t stir them though – the risk of disintegration is high, though less so with leatherjacket than some small fish I could mention. *cough*sand whiting*cough*
Now, assuming your accompaniment is ready, you’re good to go. Put fish on plate with accompaniments, spoon over sauce, use fork to separate mouthful of flesh from skeleton, place in mouth, chew, swallow, say “Lordy me this is good. FDB, what did I ever do without you?”
p.s. Sorry, no photos. It’s probably for the best, as my food pics make any meal look exactly like the school dinners from Coldfall Primary in Muswell Hill. Ah, memories…