20. Feb, 2015

The Jurassic Hake

“Fish is … one of the greatest luxuries of the table, and not only necessary, but indispensable at all dinners where there is any pretence of excellence .” – Izabella Beeton.

Jakki and I first got to know and appreciate the Patagonian Toothfish on a scalding hot day in Buenos Aires some years ago. We had decided to pass on the steak and red wine routine we had slipped into, and try some Argentine sea food and white wine. We therefore set sail for Puerto Madero, BA’s answer to the Cape Town Waterfront, where both of the above feature prominently. After comparing menus and prices, we picked a restaurant that seemed to offer a good balance between ambience and affordability.

When we enquired about our options, our waiter immediately recommended the “Merluza Negra”. After three weeks in South America my Spanish was rapidly getting back up to speed, so I asked him to explain how the “Negra” (black) hake differed from the well-known common hake (Merluccius spp.) and in particular why it was so much more expensive than the common or garden variety. He explained that the “black” hake was a rare species, caught in deep water off Patagonia.

This caused the penny to drop. There had recently been a lot of media attention in South Africa devoted to the plundering of the Patagonian Toothfish, which I knew to be a member of the same family as cod and hake. The Toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) is a large fish, measuring up to 2 m long and reaching weights of up to 200 kg. It is an extremely tasty fish, and much in demand on the US West Coast and Japan. It occurs mainly along the continental shelf of South America, but also around sea mounts and sub-Antarctic islands.

Because nations like Argentina, Chile and South Africa have limited naval resources to protect their fish stocks in the area, illegal trawling and long lining have become rampant. The Spanish seem to be the main culprits in this regard, which is not surprising given their national obsession with hake. The fish is one of the foundations of both the Basque and Catalan cuisines.

All hake varieties are essentially elongated, silver-grey fish with flesh that is very soft to the touch when raw, but becomes white, firm and flaky once cooked. The flavour is subtle, and it combines well with robust flavours like garlic, tomato and cheese. I should, however, mention that all these desirable attributes are largely negated by freezing the fish. Frozen hake is a very popular in many parts of the world because it is affordable and easy to cook, but in terms of both texture and taste it is a bland shadow of the fish in its fresh form. For best effect, hake should be kept on ice and eaten within a few days if at all possible.   

As the Toothfish served at the restaurant had Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) endorsement, we knew it had been caught in accordance with its guidelines and we therefore decided to go ahead and try it. Although the waiter had some pretty scathing things to say about the Basque fishermen who plundered his country’s fish stocks, he generously conceded that they knew how to cook fish! He recommended that we try the fish with baby clams and salsa verde (green sauce). I still owe the man a debt of gratitude. It was a meal to remember.

The fish was absolutely on the point, its texture slightly firmer and flavour slightly more pronounced than any of the hake I had previously eaten. The clams were firm and (in Rick Stein-speak) had an “ozoney” aroma. The sauce complemented it perfectly, and after finishing the fish I scooped up every last drop with a bread roll. Our food was not the only pleasant surprise we got that day: we discovered that the Argentines know a thing or two about making white wine as well! The unwooded Chardonnay from Río Negro province in Northern Patagonia could easily have passed for a Petit Chablis in a blind tasting.

Since Patagonian Toothfish is a) becoming ever rarer, and b) there is growing pressure on suppliers and restaurants not to market it, very few people are likely to experience it in years to come. The recipe below can, however, be used to good effect with good quality fresh hake. Nowadays it is relatively easy to find, and the taste and texture is far superior to that of thawed frozen hake.  

Preparation time: ½ Hour.

Cooking time: 20 minutes.

Serves 4 adults.

Tastes best accompanied by a well-chilled Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay (or a good Vinho Verde).

 

4 Skinless hake fillets; each about 250 g.

Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

150 g Cake flour.

5 Medium-sized garlic cloves, roughly chopped.

6 Sprigs of broad leaf (Italian) parsley, chopped.

½ Cup of dry white wine.

1 Cup of fish stock.

2 Dozen baby clams (preferably live and in their shells; alternatively thawed frozen ones).

1 Cup frozen baby peas, thawed.

Crusty bread for dredging the sauce.

¼ Cup of olive oil for frying.

 

  • Rub the fish with the salt and pepper and leave in a cool place for ½  hour.
  • Heat the oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed pan. It must just be hot enough to sizzle when the fish is introduced.
  • Dust the fish lightly with the flour and cook for 1 minute on each side.
  • Transfer the fish to a warm plate.
  • Place the garlic and half the parsley in the pan. Cook, stirring all the while for a minute or so.
  • When the garlic becomes fragrant, add 2 tsp of flour and stir for another ½ minute.
  • Turn up the heat to moderate.
  • Add the wine and stock, and stir until the sauce starts thickening a little.
  • Return the fish to the pan. Reduce the heat and simmer for 2 minutes.
  • Turn the fish over with a spatula.
  • Add the clams and peas and cover the pan.
  • Allow the dish to simmer for 5 minutes, shaking it occasionally.
  • After 5 minutes, check the state of play. The fish should flake easily, and the clams (if using live ones in shells) should have opened. If not cook for another minute or two.
  • Stir in the remaining parsley.
  • Taste the sauce and season to taste.

Serve in deepish plates or bowls, and use the bread to sop up the sauce.

“Agassiz does recommend that authors eat fish, because the phosphorous in it makes brains. But I cannot help you to a decision as to how much you should eat. Perhaps a couple of whales would be enough?” – Mark Twain.