I’ve been busy baking cookies and more cookies and celebrating the holidays. But now I want to tell you all about a new cookbook. I received a review copy Take A Fish: The New School Of Cooking And Eating From Scales To Tails by Josh Niland and I loved reading about his approach to using more of each fish and using less popular fish species. I recently watched the documentary sea spiral. This film goes into detail and shows that certification programs are not always what we expect them to be. A sustainably caught fish label at the grocery store might not mean much. I didn’t feel so good about meals from our oceans. When I opened this book, the very introduction explained that NIland’s approach to fish greatly increases the usable yield. His goal is for every fish caught to get “the haul of two” by using more than just fillets. If chefs followed his example, fewer fish could feed more people. He understands that not everyone catches and butchers their own fish, and he offers suggestions on how to make the most of store-bought cuts of fish and how to ask for cuts not typically found in the fish box. The book’s sections are organized by fish size, each chapter is devoted to a specific fish species, and there are stunning photos throughout. At the beginning of the chapters there are suggestions for other types of fish that would be suitable for the recipes. The John Dory chapter is a great example of overall intent. Niland can use 90% of the total weight of John Dory. There’s John Dory Tripe with salt and pepper, which looks like crispy calamari; a tail shank tagine; John Dory Chops with Anchovy and Reaper Butter and Jerk Cauliflower, which I marked just for the cauliflower; and John Dory liver terrine with chopped Sauternes jelly. One of the prettiest dishes is the dressing of raw flounder, fragrant leaves, herbs and citrus, served as a taco-style smothered in thinly sliced radish. And there are actual tacos from Swordfish al Pastor. Fish fat is even mentioned as making up a significant portion of the total weight. The top note for the Kingfish Fat Caramel Macarons explains that the “result was delicious, with only a very mild hint of fish flavor.” For another foray into sweets, there is a custard tart with sardine garum caramel that makes me very curious. I was drawn to the X-Small section with pissaldiere and pichade, both prepared with fresh sardines rather than salted anchovies. Then I set about preparing the blinis with smoked herring and buckwheat.
I had definitely used buckwheat flour before and maybe even used it in some kind of pancake, but I had never made actual blinis. The dough was made in a few steps from heated milk, yeast, a mixture of flour, egg yolks and beaten egg whites, which were carefully folded into the mixture. I cooked the blinis on a griddle with melted butter brushed over the surface. The smoked herring was dipped in milk with a bay leaf before being mashed with butter, lemon juice and olive oil. I should mention that the recipe shown below calls for a mix of smoked herring and cooked white fish. I used all smoked herring. Mashed potatoes and more butter were added before folding in the creme fraiche and chives to form the brandade. If you refrigerated the brandade before serving, consider letting it sit at room temperature for a bit to bring it into spoonable condition. Many side dishes were prepared, including gherkins, capers, radishes and arugula.
I love make-your-own hors d’oeuvre with lots of options for toppings. The smoked herring brandade was spooned onto a blini, and sliced gherkins, capers, sliced radishes and baby arugula leaves were balanced on it. The pickled and peppery toppings balanced the rich brandade, and the buckwheat blinis were perfect delivery vehicles for everything. I still think twice before trusting any seal of approval, and I eat a little less seafood than I used to. But I am happy to use more small fish like herring and use more of each fish whenever I can.
Smoked herring and buckwheat blinis
This tastes as cheery as it looks, with the spices elevating the smoked herring brandade into truly celebratory territory. Blinis aren’t difficult to make, but they often fall off for a few basic reasons: a sluggish mix that hasn’t been lightened with egg whites or leavened with yeast, too much ghee in the skillet (which creates a greasy crust around the edges), or sitting around too long after cooking. The other challenge is keeping the size and coloring consistent, but this is where practice makes perfect. As long as you keep all of the above in mind, you will be fine.
FOR 2 PEOPLE AS A LIGHT MEAL
4 French shallots, finely diced
90 g (3 oz/1⁄2 cup) pickles, drained and finely diced
60 g (2 oz/1⁄2 cup) small salted capers, rinsed and drained
8 radishes, cut into thin wedges
30g (1 oz/1 cup) extra virgin olive oil from picked watercress for dressing
Sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper
seeded mustard for serving (optional)
Brandade with smoked herring
80 g (23/4 oz) smoked herring fillet
210 ml (7 fl oz) whole milk (whole milk).
1 bay leaf
70 g (2 1⁄2 oz) skinless, boneless, white-fleshed fish such as ling or snapper
60 g butter, soft
juice of 1⁄2 lemon
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
60 grams of mashed potatoes
1 1⁄2 tablespoons sour cream or crème fraîche, plus more for serving
2 bunches of chives, very finely chopped
125 grams of buckwheat flour
125 g (4 1⁄2 oz) plain (all-purpose) flour
1 teaspoon fine salt
250 ml (8 1⁄2 fl oz/1 cup) whole milk (whole milk).
10 grams of dry yeast
3 eggs, separated
Ghee for frying
For the brandade, check the smoked herring meat and make sure it’s boneless and skinless. Place the milk and bay leaf in a small saucepan and bring to the boil, then remove from the heat and add the smoked herring. Let sit for 10 minutes, then strain the herring and discard the milk (or save for use in mashed potatoes or a root vegetable soup). Steam the whitefish in a bamboo steamer for 5 minutes or until the meat is cooked through and comes off easily. Place the herring and fish in a small bowl, add half the butter and mash with a fork. Drizzle over the lemon juice and 1 tablespoon olive oil while mixing with a fork, then add the mashed potatoes and mix well. Add the remaining butter and olive oil and mix again, then season with salt to taste. Allow the mixture to cool, then fold in the sour cream or crème fraîche. Chill in the fridge for at least 1 hour.
For the blinis, sift both flours and salt into a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Pour the milk into a small saucepan and bring to blood temperature over low heat. Remove from the heat, add the yeast and let it dissolve, then let stand 5 minutes until fluffy. Turn the mixer to low speed and mix in the flour and salt. Slowly pour in the milk and mix for 2 minutes to form a smooth batter. Cover the bowl with a dishcloth (tea towel) and let rise in a warm place for 45 minutes or until doubled in size. Add the egg yolk to the batter and mix with a whisk for 1 minute. In the very clean bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, place the egg whites and beat the egg whites until fluffy. Add half to the batter and fold in gently to fluff it, then fold in the remaining egg whites (this second batch airs the batter to give the blini the desired lightness). Set aside to rise for another 15 minutes.
To cook the blinis, heat a wide-bottomed cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat a good 2 minutes before beginning. It is important that the pan is hot. Add 1 tablespoon of ghee and swirl around to ensure the base is well greased and a very light haze comes off the ghee. In batches of six, add a tablespoon of batter to the pan for each blini, making sure to make clean circles. Bake for 30 seconds or until edges are lightly golden and bubbles appear on top. Flip the blinis and cook an additional 30-60 seconds, until firm but soft and set in the center. Place on a wire rack to cool or place in a cloth napkin to keep warm. Repeat with the rest of the dough. You should have enough to make 25-30 blinis.
To serve, arrange the shallot, cornichon, capers and radish separately together with the herring brandy. Top the brandade with the finely chopped chives, dress the watercress with a little olive oil and season. Serve with the blinis and some mustard, if you like.
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