What a catch

Just-caught fish cooked with skill needs little embellishment, writes Brigitte Hafner. Grab a line and plenty of lemons.
Antonia Pesenti

One of the things I love about summer holidays is cooking fish with my friend Philip Cox. Better known for his architecture, Philip is fabulous in the kitchen. He’s one of those cooks who produces wonderful dishes seemingly without effort, and I enjoy watching his unique style of cooking; he’s fast and almost nonchalant in the way he throws things together. His confidence in the kitchen and his repertoire of recipes have been honed over many years of cooking for friends at his beach house in Bermagui.

Bermagui is located on the rugged south coast of New South Wales, where fish are plentiful in the estuaries and along the rocky shoreline. Friends gladly catch them and bring to Philip to cook. When the fish aren’t biting, he travels into town to buy them from the local coop. There are often many guests coming and going, and the food seems to simply appear and stretch to accommodate. I still have a tantalising memory of the whiting fillets a friend caught last summer. Philip cooked them over an open fire in a thin iron pan in butter, a dash of peanut oil (which he prefers to olive oil) and a good deal of coarsely grated lemon. As he flipped the fish onto plates, he returned the pan to the fire for a moment to brown the butter. The grated lemon zest imparted flavour and then turned into wonderful crisp lemon chips. A very simple but outstanding dish.

Just-caught fish cooked with skill is one of the most satisfying things to eat. Fish needs little embellishment: a little extra-virgin olive oil, some butter, salt flakes and lemon. On one occasion Philip grilled garfish over hot coals and served them with lemon, and as garfish are so delicate in flavour, they were perfect.

Another memorable fish dish from Philip last summer was steamed bream with ginger, spring onions, garlic and soy sauce, with sizzling hot sesame oil drizzled over the whole fish just before it was served. Divine. Then there was an excellent fish soup made with a base of sautéed onion, celery, carrot, ginger, Malay curry paste and fish stock (which Philip had made with the bones and heads of the fish) passed through a coarse sieve. The small pieces of fish were poached in this soup, which was finished with a splash of Cognac.

The number-one secret to great tasting fish is freshness, so look for specimens that smell of the ocean and have bright scales and clear eyes that are bulging, not sunken. I usually buy whole fish and then ask the fishmonger to scale and fillet them. You can better judge the freshness of a whole fish than a fillet. Fillets absorb water during their storage on ice, which leaches precious oils, and hence flavour, from the fish.

Some fish are ideal for grilling, such as whole baby snapper, salmon fillets and barramundi. Some are more suited to a flat grill, generally varieties that are more delicate, such as whiting, garfish and flathead. Either way, the grill should be very hot and very clean and the fish should be brushed with oil so the skin doesn’t stick. I usually cook fish skin-side down first until it’s golden-brown, and flip it over onto the flesh only just at the end to finish it off. Fish cooks very quickly (fillets need only a few minutes), so keep a close eye on it, and it’s ideal if you take the fish off the heat just before it’s cooked through, because it will continue to cook as it rests.

How can you tell when a fish is cooked? Experienced cooks will give the fish a prod at the thickest part to feel if the flesh gives way, but you can also check for the “milk” that seeps from the fish once it’s cooked (be aware that this usually happens once it’s past the point of no return).

A few of my favourite accompaniments to serve with grilled fish are avocado salsa with preserved lemon, chilli, coriander, lime juice and extra-virgin olive oil; homemade mayonnaise with a touch of crushed garlic; and tomato salsa made with the ripest of tomatoes, finely chopped shallots, sumac, coriander, pomegranate molasses and lots of extra-virgin olive oil.

This summer I’m taking some interesting spice blends and curry pastes, extra-virgin olive oil and salt flakes on my journey to the South Australian coast, so I can be adventurous with the fish I cook. I also plan on stopping at Robe on my way to eat fresh lobster. I find the flesh so rich and sweet and delicate that they are best boiled in sea water, then served simply with aïoli or mayonnaise or a fresh herb butter and some lemon wedges.

I hope your holidays are equally delicious.

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