I’m teaching myself to cook little, less popular fish. Sardines, leatherjacket, mackerel and barbounia have all debuted on my kitchen bench in recent months. In fact, let’s take a step back. I’m teaching myself to cook fish. It’s never been a strength of mine. I’ve barbecued snapper wrapped in banana leaf and baked a whole salmon, but they were one-offs and their success – I suspect – was a fluke. I’m a dab hand at fish cakes. And I’ve got beer battering and deep-frying down pat, but hand me a fish slice and a fillet of barramundi, john dory, or salmon and I’m a little bit lost. I’ll probably cook it until that oily white stuff oozes out – a sign of over-cooking, so i’m told. I’ll pan fry it carefully then blast it in the microwave just to be safe.
So I’m teaching myself to cook fish – little ones in particular.
Why little fish?
By little fish I mean those lower down the food chain that are fast growing and breeding and less likely to be over-fished. There is less demand for them because every man and his dog is buying more popular species – in Australia it’s barramundi, salmon, tuna, and snapper – bigger fish that take longer to reach sexual maturity and to replenish their dwindling stocks. In the United Kingdom it’s cod, haddock, and sole. As a sustainable fish option, the littlies seem to be the better way to go.
My initial research into sustainable seafood unearthed a number of conflicting views: from environmental groups that label as endangered many fish that the Australian Fisheries Management Authority does not; to a fish market executive who said all the fish sold at his venue was sustainable – even bluefin tuna – because it was fished (supposedly) according to legal quotas; and a local Sydney chef and sustainable fish advocate who believes shipping in wild-caught Alaskan salmon is more sustainable than flying in farmed salmon from Tasmania which requires 5 kilograms of wild fish feed per kilogram of salmon.
Amidst the confusion, recurring advice i was given was to push myself out of my comfort zone, avoid popular fish, and buy those that are less in demand.
Little fish are less popular than their bigger cousins for a number of reasons:
1) People think they stink. Maybe that’s a bit strong, but some species of small fish are smellier than other fish and have stronger tasting flesh – think sardines, anchovies, and herring – which are off-putting for some consumers.
2) People don’t know what to do with them, or assume they’re difficult to cook. They feature in cookbooks far less often than more popular varieties and celebrity chefs stick to better known crowd-pleasers when it’s their turn on stage.
3) People consider them a poor man’s food, cat food, or bait for bigger fish. In short, small fish suffer from a bad image, or from a lack of image, which puts pressure on more popular fish stocks.
So I’m teaching myself to cook little fish. Let the lesson begin.
A lesson in sardines
It’s Saturday night. I’m virtually up to my wrists in sardine blood and guts, and I don’t envy fishmongers their jobs. I hack open their little bellies amateurishly until they’re ragged and torn, rather than slitting them open seamlessly. On my first attempt to de-gut one of these sleek silver-skinned sardines – each no longer than my hand – I rip out the entire spine and yank off the tail, which is supposed to stay on for aesthetic reasons along with the head.
There’s also a MasterChef moment when I almost forget to remove the scales (in the latest series a contestant served sardines on toast, scales and all). I start scraping, unskillfully, and they flick everywhere – on the wall, all over the bench, on the floor. I don’t know it at the time, but I will be finding scales for days, dried and shriveled like shed fingernails. As I scrape, I occasionally chaff the sardine skin leaving behind additional amateurish hack marks. It’s no work of art. I clearly don’t have the right knife – or know-how – for the job.
Lying side-by-side these sardines may look like they’ve been attacked by a chain saw but they’re still edible. So I push on, unenthusiastically. I oil, season and grill them on a hotplate, brushing them with Harissa dressing (see Jamie Oliver’s recipe for Harissa sardines and couscous salad). The hot oil starts to smoke out the kitchen. The spicy dressing spikes the smoke until it catches at the back of our throats. My partner flicks the extractor fan up to full speed then exits the room. He isn’t thrilled at the prospect of eating smelly sardines for dinner and the excessive smoke isn’t helping matters.
I serve the sardines on a bed of couscous that is flecked with black olive, spring onion, mint leaves and feta. Natural yoghurt and the remaining harissa dressing are pooled to one side. The sardine skins are appropriately charred. They look surprisingly good.
Tentatively we tuck in. I enjoy the smoky spiced flavour of the Harissa-crusted skin and the flesh isn’t as strongly flavoured as I expected. I’m feeling rather pleased with myself. They’re fiddly, it can’t be denied. The small size of each fish means you don’t ever get large forkfuls of flesh and there are myriad tiny bones, but mostly they’re hair-like and easier to eat (barely noticeable in fact) than remove.
I suspect true sardine lovers eat them whole, and would mock our picky eating style. My partner is less impressed with tonight’s feast. He finds the little fish too fiddly, the bones too many. Despite the flavoursome flesh and a thoughtful recipe, I suspect I won’t get sardines over the line again in a hurry. And frankly the house stinks. In future sardine cooking will be outside job. The barbecue beckons.
I won’t give up on this “short lived resilient species”, as the GoodFishBadFish website describes it. Most of the catch is bought by the southern bluefin tuna farms and processed into fishmeal. The sardine season peaks in winter, so they’re currently a good buy. Seven cost me just $4.23. The cat devoured one, cooked for his benefit, the next day.
Next up, barbounia
I already have six barbounia in the fridge, so I feel obliged to cook them the next day. Although I have to admit my heart is not in it. Fortunately, the fishmonger had agreed to gut and clean them for me. That’s because they’re bigger than sardines. They’re less trouble. And they have wonderful pink skin, which doesn’t help explain why they are also sold as bluestriped goatfish. Red mullet – a name they also goes by – is more understandable, though technically they’re not a member of the mullet family. Anyway, I’d never heard of them, but found a small stash at the fish market. I Googled barbounia and found a stack of Greek recipes – this little fish is clearly a Mediterranean favourite.
My hatchet job on the sardines the previous evening doesn’t seem so bad after I see what was done to the barbounia. Their bellies have been similarly raggedly slashed. It seems I’m not the only one who has something to learn.
“Fish again?” my partner says unenthusiastically when he sees the barbounia lying side-by-side in the pan. They’ve been oiled, seasoned, and vine wrapped. Before that, they were stuffed with a shave of lemon zest and fennel fronds. The vine leaves help them not to dry out as they grill on the hotplate. When we pull the vine leaves away it takes the skin with it, exposing white flesh that is superbly sweet and moist and softly perfumed with lemon and fennel. The bones are almost as many as there were in the sardines, and they’re bigger so they have to be painstakingly removed. It’s not a dish to eat in a hurry. But it’s certainly tasty.
When I was sourcing recipes, the GoodFishBadFish team suggested a dish or barbounia fillets that are fried to a crispy skin and served with a sauce of fish stock (made from the reserved bones) white wine, saffron, garlic and onion. It sounds sophisticated and the thought of the sauce with the sweet barbounia flesh leaves me salivating. Fillets are also easier to eat. I’ll try that recipe next time.
But first I’ll get myself a decent filleting knife (I suppose outsourcing the task would be a little bit slack) – one that doesn’t hack and chaff and tear at little fish. As a first-timer, I doubt I’ll fillet with much finesse. But I do feel good about choosing a less popular variety of fish.
In my quest for sustainable seafood I’ve turned a blind eye to prawns, which I usually cook once every week or two. The Australian Marine Conservation Society lists prawns as “think twice” – meaning, eat something more sustainable if possible. The GoodFishBadFish site has an interesting section on prawns. What to do?
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