Citrus-Cured Brill with Herbs and Vinaigrette
"Herbs are the friend of the physician and the pride of cooks."
Charlemagne (742-814 AD)
Here is a recipe I cut out of my regular "Delicious" magazine (the April 2021 edition) and saved in my folder of “to-do” recipes. Having now "to-done" it a few times I can honestly say it’s as fresh and zingy as it looks and sounds and I've made it several times, that much do I like it.
No particular fish was prescribed in the recipe but I have been drawn to use brill which, on this occasion I bought from Yorwarth's Fresh Fish at High Street Kensington Farmers' Market, as I rather like its neutral flavour and slightly firm texture when served ‘uncooked’. If, in a recipe like this, the fish 'melts' too willingly, I find it rather withdraws from its deserved starring role. Brill is a fish caught in nets so, during the summer when weeds are prone to hinder the netters, it's a bit hit-and-miss if and when it is available from our local inshore fishermen. But at the same time, as a dish, it relies on a collection of herbs that are very much a summer offering so it's a real delight when all the ingredients put in their appearance at the same time - something that is palpably becoming harder to predict reliably these days!
The fish is given a fairly quick curing in a mixture of citrus zests (and juices, see below), sea salt, crushed black peppercorns and chopped herbs: chives, dill, and coriander. It is then thinly sliced and served with a further mixture of picked herbs: tarragon, chervil, basil, purple basil and dill. Such has been the success of the balcony herb garden this year I’m proud to say all the herbs except the coriander and basil were harvested from it. Self-congratulations aside, the dish is finished with thinly sliced lime, more crushed black peppercorns, and with a punchy sweet and sharp shallot vinaigrette which would grace many a "salady" concoction.
This is a fabulous starter but it would easily be a go-to for me as a fish course in a 4 or 5 course meal. Having made this several times I'm happy to say I really like this dish!
A couple of things I have done differently to the original recipe are, first, that I have added some of the juice of the lemon and orange to the cure. Because I have chosen brill as the fish for the dish I have found, after a few experiments, that the acid helps to tenderise the texture of the brill's flesh in a way that might not be required by other species. Second, I have accentuated the piquancy of the black pepper in the cure by using some freshly and coarsely crushed black peppercorns in the final garnish.
When it comes to the selection of herbs that make up the mix I really think there is much room for manoeuvre. The purple basil that was suggested in the original recipe is inspired and adds a superb colour addition to the appearance of the dish. So much so that, realising how unavailable it is for sale, I started growing it in my herb garden (my puppy recently brought in a stalk for my approval!). However, apart from its colour, it doesn't do much more than the basil we are much more familiar with in terms of flavour but what I would say is that, while the choice of herbs is very much a wide open one, I would have to recommend that tarragon, dill and basil are put high on the list of inclusions.
The quantities given for the vinaigrette make too much - at least twice what is needed - but it is so good it is worth making the full amount as it keeps well in the fridge and is superb on any salad especially with more robust leaves like cos or gem lettuces. The process of blanching the shallot is probably not essential but it does somewhat temper the overt pungency that it naturally imparts.
This recipe is another which may be off-putting due to the length of its ingredient list. And again I urge this not to be a deterrent. The vinaigrette can be made days in advance, keeps for days and days, and pretty much all the ingredients are in stock or easy to get hold of. Once the chosen herbs have been sourced there really is nothing much to do.
Citrus-Cured Brill with Herbs and Vinaigrette
Ingredients (Serves 2)
1½ tbsp coarse sea salt
1½ tbsp granulated sugar
2 tsp grated orange zest plus 2 tsp of orange juice
1 tsp grated lemon zest plus 2 tsp of lemon juice
4 black peppercorns, coarsely crushed
1 tbsp chopped fresh dill
1 tbsp chopped fresh chives
1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
250g brill fillets, preferably from the white side, skin removed (see recipe intro)
For the vinaigrette (makes at least twice the quantity required - see recipe intro):
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 small garlic clove, crushed
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
2 tbsp vegetable stock (made from a good-quality cube is absolutely fine)
8-10 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp runny honey
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 very thinly cut lime slices
A selection of freshly picked soft herbs e.g. tarragon, chervil, basil, dill, purple basil
Coarsely crushed black peppercorns, quantity to taste
In a non-reactive dish mix together the salt, sugar, zests and juices of the orange and lemon, the crushed peppercorns and the chopped herbs and rub well all over the fish fillets. Cover with cling film and chill for 2 hours, turning and recoating half way through.
While the fish is curing make the vinaigrette. Put the chopped shallot into a small pan of boiling water and blanch for 5 seconds. Drain into a sieve and run cold water over them then drain again and lay on a sheet or two of kitchen paper to dry as much as possible. In a bowl whisk together the mustard, garlic, vinegar, stock and honey. Gradually whisk in the olive oil so that the vinaigrette emulsifies then mix in the chopped shallots and season with the salt and pepper. The vinaigrette can now be covered and chilled in the fridge until ready to use or for several days.
Gently wipe away the marinade from the fish fillets and slice them, on the diagonal, into very thin strips. Arrange these on serving plates decoratively interleaving the lime slices and some of the picked herbs. Top with the remaining herbs, drizzle over some of the vinaigrette and top with a sprinkling of crushed black peppercorns. Serve with the remaining vinaigrette on the side and, if liked, offer some good bread to complement the dish.