"Cur moriatur homo cui Salvia crescit in horto?"
("Why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden?")
Martin Luthor (1483-1546)?
Grey mullet is very much one the most under-appreciated fish that is caught in UK waters. From a culinary point-of-view it can do pretty much anything a sea bass can do but can also take on greater flavour challenges, not least in a curry where it excels. Yet at the same time it is abundant (notably off the south coast), affordable but anything but widely available. I certainly have never seen it on sale in a UK supermarket and I don't recall every seeing it in any local fishmongers. However, for the last couple of weeks the Dorset day boats have been shipping some fantastic specimens to the market stall.
The recipe I have devised here does feature some pretty powerful flavours but ones that I believe suit the flavour of grey mullet and serve to exemplify how robust a recipe grey mullet can participate in. Cider packs a bigger punch than wine in a sauce and is often used in mussel dishes in place of wine since mussels, like grey mullet, have the capacity to take on bold flavours. Sage is infamously potent as a herb and I really haven't held back here - I've used it both in the sauce and as a garnish - though crispy fried sage leaves are actually just rather savoury crunchy treats than integral flavour contributors. My brother has said to me before he sometimes uses them as something of a cheap win!
To my taste the chosen cider should probably be a dry one, a medium-dry one perhaps. The reduction of the cider with the shallot and lemon juice intensifies any sweetness on offer and I am not one of a sweet tooth, but I accept that others are. I'm happy to leave it as a matter of preference - the grey mullet will oblige.
Being made with steaks of fish I would say this is something of a fish-lover' fish dish as there will quite obviously be bones to navigate. From a flavour point-of-view there is no reason why this recipe could not be made with boneless fillets, and grey mullet do offer up nice, meaty fillets. Curiously I also think that, although totally unrelated biologically, this dish would work equally well with steaks from large red mullet.
Some simply boiled potatoes are all that is required to accompany this plate as there's enough flavour to go around. Seasonal green veg are always welcome of course! But, as I often suggest with dishes in which the sauce has been built with cider, a glass of cider is probably what you want to make sure you have alongside here.
In the first step of the recipe I have suggested chopping the already chopped shallot (or onion) with the already chopped sage. Rightly or wrongly, I believe that there is significant gain achieved from going through a 'joint-chopping' process when preparing onion/garlic/herb combinations such as a persillade, a gremolata or here a simple 'sage and onion' mix. Without any scientific justification I just feel that there's an exchange of flavour that arises from the process that benefits the final results. It is not essential, of course.
The one issue that may be of concern with this recipe is that the skin of the grey mullet as it comes out here may not appeal to all. Crispy from a barbeque or roasting oven there probably would be no question mark, but from the braising process of this recipe there is no 'crispy' to report. Obligingly, by the time the steaks are removed from the warming oven, the skin will peel away quite willingly, so it's really no burden at all to remove it if that is the preference. And as the nature of the dish, especially if made with steaks of fish, makes it most suited to be made for two, this will take hardly any time at all anyway.
Grey Mullet with Cider and Sage
Ingredients (Serves 2)
450g grey mullet steaks each 2 cm thick
50g shallot (or onion), coarsely chopped
2 tsp coarsely chopped sage leaves
1 tsp olive oil
45g butter, cut into 8 cubes, kept fridge-cold
12-16 whole sage leaves, for garnish
275ml cider, dry or medium-dry (see recipe intro)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Lemon juice, a squeeze or two (approx 1 tsp)
2 tsp chopped parsley (flat leaf or curly)
Preheat the oven to 80-100°C for keeping the fish warm later. Chop the shallot and 2 tsp sage leaves together on a board until they have formed a fine-textured mixture, then set aside. Season the fish steaks all over with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
In a sauté pan large enough to take all the fish steaks, and for which you have a lid, heat the 1 tsp of olive oil and 2 cubes of the butter. When the butter starts to bubble, add the whole sage leaves and fry over a medium-high heat for about 1 min or until they start to colour and crisp. Transfer the crispy fried sage leaves immediately with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with kitchen paper to dry and crisp further, aside.
Add 2 more cubes of butter to the pan with the shallot (or onion) and sage mixture and sweat over a medium-high heat until the shallot (or onion) starts to turn golden.
Add the fish steaks to the pan and fry for no more than a minute per side so that they start to brown, adding another cube of the butter when you turn the fish.
Pour in the cider, bring to the boil, then lower the heat to low-medium, cover the pan and allow to simmer gently for 3 mins. Transfer the fish, with a slotted spoon, to a plate and put in the warm oven while you complete the sauce.
Bring the juices in the sauté pan to the boil and, back over a medium-high heat, reduce them to a syrupy consistency. At this point whisk in the final cubes of butter (use 2 or 3 as preferred), one at a time to create a glossy sauce and season with salt, freshly ground black pepper and lemon juice to taste. Finally, stir in the chopped parsley.
Divide the fish steaks (peel away the skin if preferred - see recipe intro) between two serving plates and knap over the sauce. Garnish each plate with the crispy fried sage leaves and serve straight away.