Sea Bass with Mint, Tomatoes and Red Onions

I have a mini herb garden in my kitchen, pots of basil, coriander, lovage, mint and others, all lined up on the window sills. The mint is a problem: it grows like a weed and tends to smother the others, so every now and again I will search for a recipe that uses mint, just so I can prune it without feeling guilty.

This recipe comes from Skye Gyngell’s ‘My Favourite Ingredients’, one of those books that, no matter which random page you open it at, you want to eat what you see. This one, for example, tastes even better than it looks.

As usual, using the very freshest, perfectly ripe ingredients allows it to sing. If you don’t have sea bass, this would work equally well with the freshest mackerel, or meaty tuna steaks. I served it alongside fennel chips, the flavour of the fennel seeds echoing the crushed fennel in the sauce, but I think it would also be delicious with simple steamed rice.

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RECIPE – Serves 2 

2 sea bass fillets, skin on

100ml extra virgin olive oil

3 sweet red onions, peeled and finely sliced

1 tsp fennel seeds

1 tsp dried red chilli

sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

a handful of flat leaf parsley, coarsely chopped, leaves only

a small bunch mint, coarsely chopped, leaves only

4 ripe, sweet, juicy tomatoes, roughly chopped

1 tbsp sherry vinegar

1 tbsp olive oil, for frying


METHOD

Set the sea bass fillets aside on a covered plate to allow them to come to room temperature.

Place a pan over a low heat, pour in the extra virgin olive oil and, when the oil is warm, add the onions. Cook very gently for about 30 minutes, to bring out the gentle sweetness of the onions. Meanwhile, toast the fennel seeds in a dry frying pan to release their flavour, then grind using a pestle and mortar.

Add the ground fennel seeds to the onions, crumble in the chilli and season with a little salt. Cook for a further 10 minutes, still over a very low heat. Add half the parsley and mint, stir well, then add the tomatoes and sherry vinegar. Turn up the heat a little and cook for 10 minutes. This sauce should taste very clean, so don’t cook the tomatoes for too long.

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Season the fish well, especially on the skin side. This will draw out the moisture in the skin, allowing the skin to go crisp and crunchy when cooked and adding both flavour and texture to the finished dish.

Place a non-stick ovenproof frying pan over a high heat. Pour in a little olive oil and when hot, lay the fish skin side down in the pan. Cook for 2–3 minutes until the skin is golden brown. Immediately transfer the pan to the oven to finish cooking without turning the fish. This should take no more than a further 2–3 minutes.

To serve, taste the sauce for seasoning and adjust if necessary, then add the rest of the parsley and mint. Spoon into warm shallow bowls and lay the fish fillets on top. Serve at once.

Prawn Risotto

I reintroduced myself to the simple, calming pleasure of stirring a risotto yesterday evening. Admittedly, spending 25 minutes or so watching over and stirring rice isn’t everybody’s idea of pleasure, but after a hectic day rushing around from pillar to post it made me stop, and allowed me to reset and relax. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the results were divine, but by the time it got to the table I was in exactly the right frame of mind to enjoy it.

There are a few essentials in making a great risotto: the rice you use is crucial, Carnaroli is best I think, though Arborio is fine. Also, the finer you chop your shallots and celery the better; I try and ensure that each piece is no larger than a grain of rice so they release all their flavour then disappear. The quality of your stock is also crucial: chicken stock gives the best flavour, fish stock comes a close second, or you can use a light vegetable stock. If you absolutely must use a stock cube then the results will also be great, but with something as simple as this you get out what you put in. It is essential that you keep your stock at a gentle simmer so that you never interrupt the cooking of the rice as you add it.

Serve alongside an apple and celery salad, the perfect accompaniment.

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RECIPE – Serves 2 

2 tbsp olive oil

2 or 3 banana shallots, very finely chopped

2 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 celery stick, trimmed and very finely chopped

200g carnaroli risotto rice

100ml dry vermouth

approx 800ml hot stock (chicken, fish or vegetable)

220g raw peeled king prawns

140g peas

1 spring onion, white and green parts, very finely sliced on the diagonal

finely grated zest of half a lemon

1 1/2 tsp finely chopped mint

a swirl of extra-virgin olive oil to finish


METHOD

Get your stock bubbling at a very gentle simmer, and keep it at this temperature throughout the cooking.

Heat the oil in a wide, deep, heavy-bottomed risotto pan or saucepan over a low-medium heat. Gently fry the shallots, garlic and celery for around ten minutes until softened. Turn the heat up to medium, add the rice and stir thoroughly to ensure that every grain is coated. Cook on for a minute or so, then add the vermouth and turn the heat up. Bubble the vermouth for a couple of minutes until the alcohol has evaporated.

Turn the heat down to low-medium again, then add a ladleful of stock. Stir with a wooden spoon until the rice has absorbed the stock and is just at the point of sticking to the pan (don’t let it actually stick though!). Continue to add the stock, a ladle at a time, stirring very frequently while it is absorbed. Keeping it at a low temperature ensures that the rice takes up the stock and its flavour, rather than it evaporating off. This will take 20-25 minutes.

When the rice grains are plump and tender, yet still retaining a little ‘bite’, season generously and add the prawns and peas. Cook for 2 minutes, then cover and cook for a further 2 minutes until the prawns are only just cooked through.

Stir through the spring onion, most of the lemon zest and 1 tsp of the mint. Top with a swirl of extra-virgin olive oil, remove from the heat, cover and allow to sit for a couple of minutes.

Check the seasoning, garnish with the remaining mint and lemon zest, and serve.

Salmon and Prawn Burgers with Chilli Mayo

Get them right and there are few things better than a well-made fish cake. The trouble is, every recipe that I have for fish cakes involves quite a lot of work, time and effort. I don’t mind that at all, the results are always worth it, but sometimes the craving arrives on a day that I am pushed for time. To my joy, I spotted this recipe in a BBC Good Food magazine, and it delivers on every front: it’s quick to make (on the table within 30 minutes), requires no skill at all, and it tastes absolutely divine.

It is infinitely flexible as well. This recipe calls for a simple salad as an accompaniment but you can add onions, gherkins, capers, chillies… anything you fancy. You can also substitute the chilli mayo for tartar sauce. At around 500 calories per burger (including the bun) it is also low-calorie and rich in omega-3 oil, so it’s guilt-free.

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RECIPE – Serves 4 

180g peeled raw prawns, roughly chopped

4 skinless salmon fillets, chopped into small chunks

3 spring onions, roughly chopped

1 lemon, zested and juiced

small pack coriander, stalks and leaves

60g mayonnaise or Greek yogurt

4 tsp chilli sauce

2 Little Gem lettuces, shredded

1 cucumber, peeled into ribbons

1 tbsp olive oil

4 seeded burger buns, toasted, to serve


METHOD

Briefly blitz half the salmon, the coriander stalks, spring onions and lemon zest in a food processor until it forms a coarse paste. Tip into a bowl, stir in the rest of the salmon and the prawns, season well and shape into four burgers. Chill for at least 10 mins.

Mix the mayo and chilli sauce together in a small bowl, season and add some lemon juice to taste. Mix the lettuce with the cucumber, dress with a little of the remaining lemon juice and 1 tsp olive oil, then set aside.

Heat the remaining oil in a large frying pan and fry the burgers for 3-4 mins each side or until they have a nice crust and the fish is cooked through. Alternatively, you can make it even lighter by placing the burgers on a piece of parchment on a baking sheet in a 180C oven (160 fan, gas 4) for approximately 15 minutes until just cooked through – the burger will cook on slightly so don’t worry that the centre is a little pink, as long as it is hot.

Serve with the salad on the side in toasted burger buns, with a good dollop of the chilli mayo.

Seared Tuna with Braised Little Gems and Peas, with Mustard New Potatoes

My cooking time remains seriously limited at the moment, so I am largely confined to old favourites and quick bites. This combo is a new favourite however, we are having it again this evening due to popular demand and thankfully it is very quick to make as well as being delicious.

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RECIPE – Serves 4 

4 tuna steaks, approx 200g each

20g unsalted butter

2 banana shallots, finely sliced

6 little gem lettuce, halved

150ml light vegetable stock

400g petit pois

a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped

a small bunch of chives, chopped

1 tbsp creme fraiche

For the mustard new potatoes:

500g new potatoes, scrubbed

2 tbsp creme fraiche

1 tsp wholegrain mustard


METHOD

Defrost the tuna steaks if necessary.

If necessary, cut the potatoes so they are all a similar size. Bring the potatoes to the boil in a large pan of salted water, then reduce to a simmer for approximately 20 minutes. Set aside to steam dry in a colander; when cool enough to handle, mix the creme fraiche and mustard with some salt and pepper in a large serving bowl, then toss the warm potatoes through the dressing, set aside.

Fill the bottom of a dish large enough to hold your tuna steaks with dark soy sauce to a depth of 2 millimetres. Crush two garlic cloves into it, stir thoroughly then place the tuna steaks in the soy sauce, turning until it is completely coated. Cover with cling film and chill in a fridge for 30 minutes.

Gently saute the shallots in the butter over a medium-low heat for 5 minutes, until softened but not coloured. Place the lettuce in the pan, cut side down, and cook for a minute, then turn over and cook for a minute more.

Add the stock, cover and simmer gently for around 10 minutes until the lettuce is tender. In the last couple of minutes of cooking, add the petit pois.

Season, add the chopped herbs and creme fraiche and stir thoroughly, set aside while you cook the tuna.

Heat a ridged griddle pan over a high heat. When the griddle pan is very hot, scrape any pieces of garlic and excess soy sauce from the tuna steaks and lay them in the pan. Cook for approximately 1 minute per centimetre thickness on one side, and half that on the other – to make that clear, a 2 cm thick tuna steak would be cooked for 2 minutes on one side, then flipped over and cooked for a further 1 minute. Do not move the tuna while it is cooking, it is likely to stick until it is properly cooked, and you want well-defined char lines where the ridges are. Cooking it this way should ensure the outside is well-sealed and the very middle is still quite rare, the tuna steak will cook on even when it is on your plate.

Serve the tuna on warmed plates and let everyone help themselves to the braised lettuce and mustard potatoes.

Quick Cod and Prawn Gratin

A few years ago Si King and Dave Myers – aka The Hairy Bikers – released a series of diet books that completely transformed my outlook on dieting. I’ve always kept myself fit and healthy, but creeping age and a slowing metabolism meant that the pounds crept on over the years. Sound familiar?

Dieting though? Everybody I have ever known who has been on a traditional diet – one that is based on denying yourself treats and cutting down your food intake – has lost loads of weight, only to put it all back on again, and a little more, once they return to ‘normal’ eating. There are complex metabolic (and mental) reasons why this happens, so, it struck me that the way to lose weight and keep it off isn’t by denying yourself but by finding other ways to satisfy yourself. The way to do that is by eating food that is low in calories but delicious, filling and satisfying. That way you don’t feel like you’re doing some kind of penance. Coupling that outlook with cycling through the 5:2 diet a few times a year, I changed the way I view treats and I have kept the weight off as I approach my mid-fifties.

Those Hairy Bikers books contain recipes that could be tailor-made for a 5:2 eating plan: low-calorie, healthy and absolutely delicious. I’m not a diet guru, but if you’re struggling with your diet then try this recipe, try it even if you’re not. My wife is one of those lucky people who will probably be slender forever, but when I am not on the 5:2 diet she still asks me to make stuff like this, just because she loves it.

Total calories per portion are 287. Yep, just 287 – that means you can have a fat boy portion if you want but not turn out to be a fat boy!

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RECIPE – Serves 4 

100g raw, peeled king prawns

400g white fish fillets (cod, hake, pollock etc)

150g undyed smoked haddock

400ml semi-skimmed milk

2 bay leaves

1/2 small onion, or 1 banana shallot, peeled and finely chopped

3 tbsp cornflour

3 tbsp water

100g frozen peas

2 tbsp vermouth

40g coarse breadcrumbs

25g cheddar, grated

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

Cut the fish into 3cm chunks.

Gently heat the milk in a large pan, with the onion and bay leaves. Bring it to scalding point (where the milk at the edges of the pan just starts to foam) and keep it there.

Add the water to the cornflour to make a smooth paste, then add to the milk, stirring constantly over low heat for 5 minutes until the sauce is thick, rich and glossy.

Meanwhile, heat your grill to high.

Season the sauce, then add the vermouth and peas, cook for a minute or so then add the fish, stirring gently a couple of times and cook for two minutes. Add the prawns and again stir gently a couple of times for a further two minutes.

Transfer to a large warmed oven dish or, if you are serving individually, to whatever number of heatproof serving dishes you require. Combine the breadcrumbs and cheese, scatter over the top and grill for 2-3 minutes until the cheese has melted and the crumbs are lightly browned.

Serve alongside green vegetables, broccoli and/or cauliflower are excellent low-calorie and filling accompaniments.

Kipper Chowder

I get strange looks when I mention this dish, I’m not entirely sure why because it is just a variation on the Scottish classic Cullen Skink. I threw this together last night after noticing a few packs of kippers in the freezer that were somewhat past their best-before date – 2 years past it in fact…

Before you ask the obvious question, nobody died. Kippers are smoked herrings, and smoking a fish is of course a method of preservation. It obviously works.

I urge you to give this a go: the combination of the creamy broth, the smoky aroma of the fish and the mild onion tang of the leeks is delightful. It’s quick to make and only cost me 55 pence – the cost of a packet of flat-leaf parsley – everything else I needed to make this was already in the house.

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RECIPE – Serves 2 generously

1 tbsp rapeseed oil

1 large or 2 small leeks, trimmed, washed and finely sliced

250g floury potatoes (Maris Piper, Roosters etc) peeled and diced into 1cm cubes

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

4 kipper fillets

2 tsp cornflour

850ml whole milk

2 bay leaves

a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped

a few chive stalks, chopped

the zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon

sea salt

freshly ground black and white pepper


METHOD

In a large saucepan, heat the oil then sweat the leeks over a medium-low heat, under a lid, until softened. This will take around 5 minutes.

Add the diced potatoes and garlic and cook for a further 3 or 4 minutes, stirring often.

Put the cornflour into a small bowl and add a little of the milk, stir thoroughly to make a thin paste. Turn the heat up and add the remainder of the milk to the leeks and potatoes, with the bay leaves. Pour the cornflour paste into the pan and stir thoroughly.

Bring the milk to a gentle simmer, stirring frequently, then cook gently for around ten minutes until the potatoes are just tender. The broth should be thick and creamy, coating the back of a spoon.

Meanwhile, take the skin off the kippers and chop the fillets into 2cm chunks.

When the potatoes are ready, add the fish to the broth, bring back to a simmer, then remove from the heat, cover and set aside for ten minutes. The fish will gently poach with no danger of it overcooking.

When ready to serve, add the chopped herbs and lemon juice. Stir thoroughly and check the seasoning carefully – you are unlikely to need much salt. Add a few good grindings of black pepper, and a little fresh ground white pepper as well (if you have it).

Serve with a little crusty bread, that’s all it needs.

Salmon with Super-Crispy Skin

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The absolute best way to serve salmon is with the skin on and cooked so that it is as dry and crunchy as a potato crisp, while retaining the moistness of the salmon fillet.

The trick is two-fold: ensuring the skin is as dry as it can possibly be, and being brave enough to cook the skin side of the fish for long enough and at a high enough temperature to ensure any remaining moisture is driven out.

To get the skin as dry as possible: first remove any scales, then pat the skin dry as thoroughly as possible using kitchen paper or a j-cloth. Now take a chopping board that is set aside solely for use with raw fish, and lay several layers of kitchen paper on it. Hold the fish fillet, skin uppermost, in the palm of one hand and using the other hand season generously with sea salt. Now lay the fillet, skin side down, on the kitchen paper. Repeat with the remainder of the fillets that you are using, then cover and set aside for 30 minutes or so.

The salt on the skin will draw out any remaining moisture in the skin, and the kitchen paper will absorb it. You will be amazed at how much moisture is extracted.

When you are ready to cook, cut a circle of baking parchment the same size as the base of your frying pan – the same way that you would line the base of a baking tin. Drizzle a couple of tablespoons of light oil over the parchment, turn the heat up and let your pan get really hot, until it is just below the smoke-point of the oil.

Carefully lay the fish fillet, skin-side down, on the oiled parchment, press down so that it lies flat – the fish will probably shrink away slightly at the edges. Cook at high heat for 90% of the cooking time, which for a fillet around 2cm thick will be around 5 minutes, then flip the fillet over and flash-fry the flesh side for 30 seconds – just enough time to give it a bit of colour.

Remove the fillets from the pan and place onto a warmed plate to rest for a few minutes, then serve. It is as easy as that!

Thai Yellow Fish Curry with Coconut Rice

There are some dishes that encourage you to eat far more than you should, this is one of them. A rich, creamy yet – relatively – healthy mild Thai curry that is so moreish it should be a controlled substance. It’s the combination of coconut milk and rice, it is as warm and comforting as a hug from your mum.

As an added bonus, it’s almost as quick to make as a stir-fry, without all the chopping. It’s my new favourite dish.

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RECIPE – Serves 4

2 tbsp groundnut oil

2 tbsp yellow curry paste

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground cumin

1/2 tsp ground turmeric

400ml tin of coconut milk

1 tbsp fish sauce (nam pla)

1 tbsp soft brown sugar

6 kaffir lime leaves

300g green beans, trimmed into 3cm lengths

600g thick white fish fillets (cod, hake, haddock etc), skinned and cut into bite-sized pieces

For the coconut rice:

400ml tin of coconut milk

175ml cold water

400g long-grain rice

To garnish:

chopped coriander leaves

mild red chillies (optional)


METHOD

First, make the coconut rice: combine the coconut milk, water and rice in a saucepan, bring to the boil then reduce the heat to minimum, cover and simmer very gently for 12-14 minutes until the liquid has been absorbed. At this point, cover the rice again and set to one side for ten minutes while you start making the curry.

Place a large wok or frying pan over a medium-high heat and add the oil, when hot add the curry paste, coriander, cumin and turmeric. Stirring constantly, fry for a minute then stir in the coconut milk, fish sauce, sugar and lime leaves, then add the green beans with 50ml water.

Bring to a simmer and cook for 3 minutes, then gently add the chunks of fish and cook for a further 3 to 5 minutes, until the fish is just cooked and starts to flake. Serve alongside the coconut rice and your choice of garnishes.

Sesame Salmon, Purple Sprouting Broccoli and Sweet Potato Mash

We had a fish-hating visitor staying with us last week, so in deference to her we had ten days of lentils, pulses, vegetables and soups. All lovely stuff, but man did I miss the fish…

It was the salmon fillets that initially attracted me to this recipe in the current issue of BBC Good Food magazine, that and the fact that every ingredient here works perfectly with everything else.  What I wasn’t prepared for was just how good the sweet potato mash was (I wax lyrical about it here), and the alchemy that occurs when you put this particular set of ingredients together in this way. The first mouthful was a ‘WOW’ moment, and it only got better from there.

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RECIPE – serves 2 

For the marinade:

1/2 tbsp sesame oil

1 tbsp dark soy sauce

a large knob of fresh ginger, finely chopped

1 fat garlic clove, peeled and crushed

1 tsp runny honey

For the sweet potato mash:

2 large sweet potatoes, scrubbed and cut into wedges

1 lime, cut into wedges

1 tbsp sesame oil

1 red chilli, de-seeded and thinly sliced

a pinch of sea salt

And the rest:

2 boneless, skinless salmon fillets

250g purple sprouting broccoli

1 tbsp sesame seeds


METHOD

Heat the oven to 200C/ 180C fan / Gas 6.

Mix the marinade ingredients together in a small bowl.

Pat the salmon fillets dry with kitchen paper and season lightly, then line a baking tray with baking parchment and spread the purple sprouting broccoli in a single layer. Then put the salmon fillets on top of the broccoli and spoon the marinade over the salmon and broccoli. Roast in the oven for 12-15 minutes until the salmon is just cooked.

Meanwhile, make the mash: scrub the sweet potatoes clean and cut away any rough bits, otherwise leave the skin on. Cut each potato into eight wedges, and the lime also into eight wedges. Put the sweet potato and lime wedges into a large glass bowl and cover with cling film.

Microwave on high power for three minutes. Leave to stand for a couple of minutes then microwave for three more minutes. Repeat this process until the sweet potato is completely soft; it took me a total of 11 minutes of cooking – I judged that the last blast in the microwave should only be two minutes.

Remove from the microwave and take out the lime wedges. You should see a puddle of hot lime juice in the bottom of the bowl, leave that there and roughly mash the sweet potatoes with the lime juice, using a fork. Add the chilli and sesame oil with a small pinch of salt, then mash until fairly smooth.

Check the seasoning of the mash, scatter the sesame seeds over the cooked salmon and serve the mash, salmon and broccoli with a simple green salad.

Moroccan Prawns with Paprika and Honey

It’s been a while since I made a stir-fry. I kept telling myself I didn’t have time to make one… if you have ever made a stir-fry you will know how absolutely ridiculous that statement is. There is generally a lot of chopping involved in a stir-fry, but the cooking takes mere minutes. This recipe doesn’t even involve much chopping, so it’s super-quick.

The paprika, ginger and honey do a sexy little dance on your tastebuds, it’s a bit like sweet ‘n’ sour but not quite – however you care to define it, it is absolutely delicious. It works all by itself with some flatbread as a starter, or you can cook up some Basmati rice and it makes a great evening meal. I made this with Basmati rice with butter and lemon, I cannot begin to tell you how well they go together.

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RECIPE – serves 4 as a starter or 2 as a main course

50g butter

4 tbsp olive oil

3 banana shallots, finely chopped

1 long green chilli, de-seeded and finely chopped

3 fat cloves of garlic, finely sliced

a big thumb of ginger, finely chopped

1 tsp paprika

250g peeled raw tiger prawns

250g large tiger prawns, shell on

the juice of half a lemon

2 tbsp runny honey

the zest of half a lemon

a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped

lemon wedges, to serve


METHOD

First, prepare all your ingredients, this cooks quickly so you need to have everything to hand.

In a large pan or wok, melt the butter with the oil and when it is hot fry the shallots for a couple of minutes until translucent.

Add the chilli, garlic and ginger and cook for a further couple of minutes, then add the paprika, stir thoroughly then add all the prawns. Stir-fry over a medium heat – adding the lemon juice part-way through – for a few minutes until the prawns are just pink, they will cook on so take them off the heat sooner rather than later.

Once you have taken the wok off the heat, add the honey to glaze the prawns, stir well then add the lemon zest and parsley, then adjust the seasoning and take it to the table.

Perfect with flatbreads as a starter or, my favourite, with Basmati rice with butter and lemon.