Cheek to Cheek

One of the best things about moving to coastal Suffolk (and working with a curious, conscientious fish supplier) is the real variety of seafood on offer. Up to last year I’d barely cooked more than mackerel, bass and bream, with the seasonal additions of mussels or sardines; now we regularly use sand soles, gurnard, cod and monkfish cheeks, octopus and clams, thick slices of dogfish or turbot, our own salted hake and ling. Not, of course, that these are all from round these parts – cephalapods might come from Cornwall, salmon from Scotland, while the vast shoals of herring which sustained Lowestoft and Yarmouth have moved on to other waters – but the interest which people have in seafood, and the extent to which it has formed part of the local cuisine, is always evident; there is, for example, a biennial herring festival in Halesworth – a small inland town on a trickle of a river.

People, as I think I’ve mentioned before, make a lot of fuss about cooking fish. The angst of a crispy skin & juicy flesh! Rick Stein, with his hot pokers and his face, only helps to obscure the point, which is that all you have to do to cook fish is cook it – until it’s cooked. Fish skin, like potatoes and totally unlike the muscle of land animals, has the capacity to be taken gently from cold to brown without suffering for it. Do that to a steak and you will have a weeping grey mass – you will be a weeping grey mass; do it to a neatly-trimmed fillet of good, fresh sea bream and you will have a perfectly cooked piece of fish which only needs a brief rest on its cut side before proceeding to the plate, with the added bonus that you can, in the intervening time, see exactly what is happening to that flaked white muscle. I’m repeating myself, however.

Browning seafood without that nice, protective skin, is to be fair, a slightly more difficult proposition – but that’s only to say it’s slightly more difficult than shooting sleepy sea urchins in a wide-topped bucket. In the case, say, of scallops or of cod cheeks, you should put on a frying pan, wide enough to take the seafood in a single layer with about a centimetre in between each piece, and leave it to get extremely hot – slightly hotter than you think is sensible. Make sure each cheeky little nugget is nice and dry. Add some oil, add some coarse sea salt, add the (for the sake of argument) cod cheeks, and then leave them where they are; leave them until they are pretty much cooked through, which you can tell by the pearlescent sheen and beads of moisture which appear on top of the cheeks. Flip each cheek, one by one, then take off the heat and add a spoon of butter. When it stops sizzling, they’re done. See! That was easy. Serve with a salsa verde AND some aioli, if you’re feeling frivolous. Very cold white wine, good bread and butter – dinner.

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