Pollack, Mussels and Chard in a Whisky and Chervil Butter Sauce
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
"The water was not fit to drink. To make it palatable, we had to add whisky. By diligent effort, I learned to like it.”
Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
I love this dish. I always have. Ever since I watched the episode of "Rick Stein's Seafood Lovers' Guide" back in 2002, in which a fishing trip targeting haddock off the coast of Scotland with long lines of mussels resulted in a fruitless catch but nonetheless brought us the story of the adventure in a plate of haddock and mussels with spinach in a sauce with the whisky note of Scotland. Before proceeding, it is worth noting that it was two decades ago that this depiction of of stock depletion in a UK fishery was being broadcast by Rick Stein, and therefore to consider the progress since made, or otherwise.
As it happens, on the south-east coast I don’t believe there is much of a haddock fishery to speak of so I decided that the best way to enjoy such a fabulous recipe was to make it with pollack, a fish related to the haddock but widely available in south coast waters and very much an alternative choice to haddock. It's a regular offering on the market stall and, being supplied by day boat fisherman, comes with full assurance of quality and sustainability.
Incidentally, I should mention that, without question, the best pollack dish I have ever eaten in a restaurant came off the “Catch of the Day” board (I always order off that board) at the Pandora Inn in the Falmouth area of Cornwall. I look forward to the day when they can reopen and I can revisit.
Much to my surprise, the chervil I have been growing on my balcony since spring last year had a resurgence in the autumn and has survived through the winter - so far. It has undoubtedly been a success story not least from the point of view of my oft-penned frustration that chervil is so hard to source (see "Chervil", my newsletter from February 2020, for example). Tarragon could be used judiciously in place of the chervil, but parsley is probably the safer alternative.
Finally, I'm not proposing the chard to better the spinach in the original recipe, but I love it, it's seasonally available just at the moment and what I've been able to get in the farmers' market (from Ted's Veg) has been outstanding.
This recipe has really highlighted a challenge in terms of being able to convey the quantities of the ingredients.
First, mussels, depending on where they come from and at what time of year, vary considerably in size, weight and fullness. What you're aiming for is something around 12 to, say, 18 mussels per portion, but what is that in weight of the raw product? It's 2-3 individual handfuls, or around 250-350g of the ones I bought the other day. So let's go with that as being the quantity.
Second, chard! What you get after you wilt it is quite a lot less (though not quite as severely as with spinach) and unpredictably so than what you had when you started, so what is the best way to measure that? I think the easiest way (other than just using sight) is to talk of the drained, cooked weight, which is what I have done. The cooked weight I refer to is that of leaves which have been washed, well drained and just wilted in a hot pan with any residual water still present after draining.
Having perhaps laboured this matter, it actually works in our favour. Making this dish is not difficult but it is actually so much easier if the cooking of both the mussels and chard is done in advance because the rest of the dish cooks very quickly and butter-based sauces aren't famed for their cooperation. So on that note, I might just suggest that keeping the butter cold before finalising the sauce is quite a good idea as my experience tells me that it incorporates rather better into a hot liquid than if it has reached room temperature.
Pollack, Mussels and Chard in a Whisky and Chervil Butter Sauce
Ingredients (Serves 2)
2 x 175g fillets of pollack, skin on
500-700g mussels, cleaned (about 12-18 mussels per portion, see recipe intro)
160g cooked (wilted) and drained chard, leaves only (or use spinach)
60g butter, cubed and kept fridge-cold
1½ tbsp finely chopped shallot
1 tbsp whisky
1 tsp lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp chopped chervil, plus a couple of sprigs for garnish
Prepare the chard and meanwhile bring 125ml water to the boil in a large saucepan. Tip in the mussels, cover and cook for about 2 minutes, shaking the pan now and then, until the mussels have all just opened. Set a colander over a bowl and drain the mussels so that the cooking juices are captured. When the mussels are cool enough to handle remove the meats from all but 6-8 of the best-looking shells and set aside.
Heat a quarter of the butter in a sauté pan and gently sweat the shallot for 2-3 minutes without colouring. Pour all but the last couple of teaspoons (gritty!) of the mussel cooking liquor into the pan and bring to the boil. Season the pollack fillets with salt and pepper on the flesh side, but only salt on the skin side then place them, flesh-side-down, in the pan, cover and cook over a low-medium heat for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to rest, still covered, for 4 minutes.
Meanwhile, season and reheat the chard (the microwave is ideal for this) and place in the base of wide soup bowls for serving.
Remove the fish fillets from the pan and keep them warm in a low oven. Bring the cooking liquor back to the boil then actively whisk in the remaining three-quarters of the butter in about three batches, making sure the butter from the previous batch has been incorporated before adding the next batch. Do this for about 3-4 minutes over a medium heat so that the liquid is bubbling away but not boiling hard as this may risk the butter splitting. Once the liquid has reduced and emulsified into a sauce, pour in the lemon juice and whisky and simmer for a further 30 seconds. Adjust the seasoning to taste.
Finally add the chopped chervil and the mussels and stir for another 30 seconds, long enough for the mussels to just reheat.
Lay the pollack on the chard, distribute the mussels and sauce around and serve straightaway.
"Rick Stein's Seafood Lovers' Guide", Rick Stein (2000), pp. 95: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rick-Steins-Seafood-Lovers-Guide/dp/0563488719