When I think of fish I think pure, delicate, clean, wild and fresh. There is nothing like wild fish and, as with other food, if I can’t have the best – even in very small quantities – I prefer to do without.
Fish is my favourite food in the world and it takes precise cooking under the correct temperatures to serve it correctly. The Greeks and the Romans knew the value of fish, as did the Egyptians. Long ago the Catholic Church wisely encouraged its members to eat fish on a Wednesday and Friday as well as during Lent. It said that eating fish prevented idle chatter, since fish themselves were proverbially mute.
They forgot to mention the sheer nutritional goodness fish has – the proteins and naturally occurring oils – so much more of which is known about today.
There are about 29,000 species of fish, but we only use a fraction of them for cooking. Its flaky texture is related to its unique anatomy, which requires special treatment.
Fish muscles consist of segments of rather short fibres which are separated by large sheets of thin connective tissue. It is this weak connective tissue and short muscle bundles that result in the great tenderness of fish and its troublesome tendency to fall apart if not cooked correctly.
Salmon is one of the most delicious varieties of fish, particularly wild Atlantic salmon. It is in my view far superior to its brothers and sisters from anywhere else in the world.
It is well worth ordering it when you see it on a menu as it is getting rarer and rarer, due to overfishing and the shortening of the season. This year I got only four wild fish for the restaurant.
What is widely available is farmed salmon and farmed organic salmon, both of which can be good. However, as the word ‘organic’ for me means natural, I don’t understand how something can be termed natural if it’s bred in a pen.
The Atlantic salmon spends its young life in fresh water before migrating to the sea. It swims about 5,000 miles during its life cycle and returns to its birth place in spring to lay its eggs.
The salmon then dies within a few days of spawning. Her eggs will hatch into alevin and then quickly develop into parr with camouflaging vertical stripes. The parr stay for one to three years in their natal stream before becoming smolts – which are distinguished by their bright silvery colour with scales that are easily rubbed off.
It is estimated that only 10 per cent of all salmon eggs survive long enough to reach this stage. The smolt body chemistry then changes, allowing the fish to live in salt water.
There are many ways of cooking salmon; sauteeing, grilling, poaching in fish stock or cooking in duck fat to make a confit. This is a delicious way to cook salmon that is guaranteed to become a favourite among family and friends.
Ingredients for four persons:
4 fillets of salmon, 120g each
50ml of virgin olive oil
Sea salt, fresh milled pepper
5 stalks of lemongrass
Garnish: potato and celeriac puree
3 Maurice Piper potatoes
250g unsalted butter
Fresh milled pepper
12 cherry tomatoes
2 shallots, diced
1/2 clove garlic (pureed)
fresh herbs, chopped (tarragon, chives, flat leaf parsley)
1/2 bulb fennel, diced
1/2 ginger, peeled and diced
2 inches of lemon grass, chopped finely
3 plum tomatoes concasse (tomatoes, with a cross cut on the top and placed in boiling water for 30 seconds, then placed in an ice bath. Remove the skin, cut in quarter, remove the seeds and dice the tomato into 1cm sq)
100ml olive oil
10ml of 12-year-old balsamic vinegar
20ml of Santa Sofia (white wine)
1/2 lime, juiced
1 lime, grated
Sea salt, fresh milled pepper
1. Season and saute the salmon in a hot pan with olive oil until golden brown with the flesh part facing down. Place the salmon on the stalks of lemongrass and place in the hot oven at 175 degrees celsius for ten minutes.
2. In a separate pan, add the olive oil, diced shallots, ginger and diced fennel. Cook slowly for two minutes, add the Santa Sofia, balsamic vinegar, tomato concasse, season with sea salt and fresh milled pepper, add the lime juice and chopped herbs to taste.
3. Place the potato and celeriac puree in the centre of the plate. Place the salmon on top, arrange the cherry tomatoes, place the sauce on top and serve. This is great with Santa Sofia, which is fresh just like the salmon.
Tips when buying fish:
1.Test the freshness of the fish by examining its eyes which must be bright and shiny, the gills should be bright red. It must also be firm to the touch and have a pleasant smell.
2.The best place to buy fish is at a fish market. Sadly the Dublin Corporation Market doesn’t exist any more, so I buy most of my fish from small boats which come in on the west coast of Ireland. The Howth Market is only open to professionals, but there are a number of quality fish shops in the north Dublin town. Southsiders should try Caviston’s in Glasthule.
3.When buying fish from a fish shop make sure you quiz the fishmonger about the quality of the fish. Ask if it is farmed or wild, and when and where it was caught.
4.The best place to seek out fish is a harbour. If you see the fish coming off the boat make an offer to the fisherman to buy some. Small boats go out in the morning and come back that evening or go out at night and return early morning.
Find out about the sailing times from the locals. Then keep the source of your wonderfully fresh fish to yourself.
Kevin Thornton is a Michelin-starred chef and owner of Thornton’s Restaurant on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. www.thorntonsrestaurant.com