Updated: Dec 12, 2021
"... the girl makes fun of Miss Brill’s fur coat and compares it to a 'fried whiting.'"
Katherine Mansfield (1920)
Ever on the lookout for different ways to cook whole fish, I've focused recently on a cooking technique from "The River Cottage Fish Book" by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher, which they call “steam-baking”. Much as the name suggests the fish is cooked, covered in the oven, with a liquid bubbling away beneath but barely touching it, generating an aromatic steam in which the fish cooks along with the ambient heat. This is such a delicate way of cooking that it is perfect for a whole fish in that there is a large margin of error and little risk of overcooking and no risk at all of burnt outsides and raw insides.
The beauty of this method is that what you are in effect doing is creating a Court Bouillon (and as such your veg selection can be made with that idea in mind) at the same time as cooking your fish. The resulting broth is then boiled down hard and “monté au buerre“ (whisked with butter, if you’ll pardon my French) to create the sauce, which I’ve taken the liberty of richening further with a dash of cream and spiked with some snipped chives.
I have tried this technique with both whole brill and whole Dover sole (but the same technique could readily be used for other flatties: turbot, plaice, flounder and larger dabs) and it is now a cooking method firmly entrenched in my repertoire. It is to be recommended that the (dark) skin from a Dover sole be removed after being cooked this way, not as necessary with a brill. But there is something elegant I find in the fish being presented like this.
As mentioned above, the array of vegetables upon which the fish is cooked and with which the broth and sauce are flavoured is quite flexible. I would happily include fennel, button mushrooms, tomatoes. Equally, other herbs and spices could be included or substituted, for example fennel seeds, star anise, white or pink peppercorns and so on.
In terms of cooking time, much will depend not only on the size and thickness of the fish, but also on the thickness and material of the dish. Ceramic dishes, of course, take a lot more time to heat up than do metallic ones for example. For this reason I have suggested that the flavouring ingredients and liquids are heated in the dish in the oven in advance of putting the fish in so that the cooking time becomes more predictable. There is no harm in testing the fish a little earlier than the anticipated cooking time is up by inserting a sharp pointed knife into a thick part of the upper side of the fish and checking that the flesh is willing to part from the bone. The fish will continue to cook ever so gently as it is kept warm while the broth is being reduced for the sauce, but is very unlikely to overcook in the time this takes.
Simply boiled potatoes and some steamed green veg are quite perfect accompaniments.
Ingredients (Serves 2)
800g whole brill, cleaned
2 leeks, halved lengthways and sliced
3 sticks of celery, sliced
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
1 onion, peeled and sliced
A few sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves
Handful of parsley stalks
2 strips of lemon zest
A few black peppercorns
150ml white wine
250ml boiling water
20-30g butter (more if preferred)
2-3 tsp double cream (optional)
1 tbsp finely snipped chives (optional, or use parsley instead)
Squeeze of lemon juice (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Lemon wedges, to serve
Preheat the oven to 170C. Put the leeks, celery, carrot, onion, thyme, bay leaves, parsley stalks, lemon zest and peppercorns in an ovenproof dish large enough to take the whole fish and pour over the wine and boiling water. Cover the dish tightly with foil and put in the oven for long enough for the dish to heat up and the liquid to start to generate some steam (approximately 15 minutes).
Remove the dish from the oven, remove the foil and place the fish, dark side up, on top of the vegetables and herbs. Cover the dish again tightly with the foil and return to the oven for 35 minutes. Check the fish after this time - depending on how close to done it is (see recipe intro) return to the oven for a further 5-15 minutes, which should be sufficient. Meanwhile, warm a serving plate or platter.
Remove from the oven and remove the foil. Carefully lift the fish onto the serving plate or platter using a pair of fish slices or large flat spoons. Cover the fish loosely with foil and keep just warm.
Strain the cooking liquid through a sieve into a wide saucepan (discard the veg, their job is done) and bring to the boil to reduce the broth by half. Taste for and adjust the seasoning then whisk in the butter a little at a time over the heat. If using the cream add it at this stage, then stir in most of the chives or parsley. Once everything is incorporated test and adjust the seasoning again and add a squeeze of lemon juice if desired. Pour the sauce into a serving jug and add the remaining chives or parsley.
If preferred, peel away the top layer of skin from the fish (or do it at the table), then serve the fish from the platter with the sauce to pour over.
"The River Cottage Fish Book", Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher (2007), pp. 290: https://www.amazon.co.uk/River-Cottage-Fish-Book/dp/1408814293
"Court Bouillon", Bute Street Seafoodie