Fish, Eggs and Steaming Bream
Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006 - David Farmer
For many years I used eggs when making a batter for fish and as a sticking agent when I wanted to coat fish with flour. When pan frying fish I like to roll the fish or fish fillet in flour as it produces an attractive light brown colouring and a nutty taste.
The yolk in particular leaves a distinctive flavour so over the years I moved to using egg white. Even this no longer appeals as it still leaves a faint egg taste. Now I roll the fish in low fat milk and find this satisfactory. For the perfect fish batter go here.
These thoughts were prompted by a fish recipe I came across before Christmas in the Sydney Morning Herald that recommended an egg be added to the flour when making fish batter.
My dislike of the fish with egg taste was evident during a recent trip to the South Island of New Zealand. One of their famous regional delicacies is ‘white bait’. In Queenstown I tried the accepted way of serving this fish which is cooked in a flour egg fritter or as an omelette. The result confirmed my views as the delicate fish flavours were masked and even hidden by the taste of egg.
Later while travelling up the west coast I came across a café-milk bar in the coastal town of Greymouth which was selling whitebait fritters and asked the chef whether they could be served in a simpler way. The tiny fish were tossed in a small amount of flour, dusted off, and then quickly pan fried for a minute or so in a small amount of butter. They were delicious and getting close to my view of the correct flavour. I did wonder if they would be better without the butter. On the wall of this café was a dinner menu in honour of the Premier of New Zealand dated 1904 and the white bait was cooked in milk.
White bait is a tiny fish about three centimetres long and about the thickness of spaghetti. They are the juveniles of five species of freshwater fish called galaxiids. The most common is the Galaxias maculatus and this has a distinctive greenish band along the side. The fishing season extends from the 1st September to the 14th November. Thus those I had been eating were frozen. Why you are even allowed to catch these fish I have no idea as in the back of my mind is the knowledge that a thriving industry in Tasmania did not last long; although you can still get them if you know a poacher.
With the idea that I could cook them better I stopped at the fishing port of Westport and bought half a kilo of frozen white bait. At the local supermarket I bought a non stick frypan, peanut oil and a packet of white flour. I lightly dusted the fish, and placed them in the lightly oiled pan. Peanut oil is very good for this type of cooking as it only burns at a high heat; and incidentally is wonderful for making chips. You can watch the fish cooking as the colour goes from translucent to opaque and this happens quickly, in this case within 40 seconds.
With a squeeze of lemon juice on the side of the plate and a touch of salt for dipping they were perfect.
The flavours of many estuarine and in-shore fish are delicate and are readily masked by herbs, spices and other strong flavouring agents. I believe fish should be left alone and served very simply.
All of which leads me to a recipe I want to share which I now use when I cook bream.
Bream is a very popular eating fish though I have never found it all that appealing, at least when there is other fresh fish around, and have struggled for years to find a way to cook it that brings out the flavour. It is white fleshed and makes a good boneless fillet which accounts for its popularity.
If the fish has just been caught here is a way that brings out the best. You will need a stainless steel pan with sides from 15cm to 20 cm high. Do not wash, scale or gut the fish. Line the base of the pan with freshly gathered sea weed of several types. Place the fish on the seaweed and then cover it with more seaweed. Tip in a cup of sea water but the water level must not touch the fish as this would poach it and what you want is to steam the bream in its own skin.
Preheat the oven so the pan goes in when it is at say, 165-185C and slowly increase the temperature till steam is rising then turn down. The hard part is getting the cooking time right. It goes from undercooked to overcooked very easily. Overcooking makes the flesh go mushy. Alas only trial and error will get this part of the cooking right. For the first few times check the progress of the fish. After that it will come pretty naturally like all cooking.
The skin and scales peel off in one piece so when serving cut the skin along the top of the fish and just peel it off. Lift off the fillet, turn and do the other side.
I like to serve this with sauces of different colours thus you might have a lemon butter sauce on one side of the plate and green coloured sauce, sorrel is very good as is parsley in ‘sauce persil’, on the other side. I do not like sauce poured over the fish as it seems to me each guest should make up their own mind as to how fish should be eaten.