To fillet or not? That is the question

Fish meet Knife. Knife meet Fish
This post first appeared on Great British Chefs blog.

Watching a fishmonger work with a knife and go about their craft is a simple yet entrancing pleasure. Now, I’ve witnessed many a butcher disassemble a carcass with ease and have always been impressed at the technical knowledge and surgical precision on display. But in terms of elegance and making everything look effortless, the flashing silver of a fishmonger's blade is hard to beat.  Slapped on the counter top, all wet and shiny, a plaice or a trout can be transformed in seconds into fillets or steaks via some carefully drawn lines and delicate maneuvering with a super sharp and sometimes flexible knife. Blink and before you know it, the fish is wrapped up in paper, slung in a plastic carrier bag and an expectant hand is leaning across asking for payment. And this is before you’ve even had a chance to ask for the head and bones.

I know my local monger of fish, though happy to show off his skills, often gets a touch frustrated at the time it takes for me to get my wallet out. This is largely because I am usually still gorping at what I have just seen; face all beatific, like the kid who has just seen the rabbit come out of the top hat. Heavy coughs normally shake me out of my stupor, with the occasional ‘tut’ from behind. And having paid up, off I will bounce into the distance. Satisfied and buoyant, having had my little fix of ‘fishy magic’ for the week.

Every now and then though, I do like to take my fishmonger by surprise by asking for a fish to be kept whole and intact. Better still, I like to meet his raised eyebrows with a defiant stare that sort of says - “You’re not the only one who can fillet fish around here you know.” Because I can. I went to Rick Stein’s Seafood School in Padstow about 8 years ago now and spent two days studying the finer art of fish dissection whilst drinking copious amounts of wine. As well as gaining numerous blue plasters during the course, I did also receive a certificate, which still proudly hangs on my kitchen wall. It pays to keep your oar in, so to speak and so early last week I decided to buy some lemon sole with the intention of recreating a fiery Malaysian themed dish. 

A child enjoying the benefits of a home economics lesson at home
One problem I have these days is that whenever I decide to fillet fish at home, there is the constant barrage of questions from young, inquisitive minds. No sooner do I think that I am going to settle down to some relaxing prep, then up pops a head asking “What are you doing Daddy?” Of course, this is all educational so I do my best to explain what I am up to and the children are actively encouraged to handle the fish wherever possible. The real issues arise however when you discover that your son has run off with some fins that have been snipped off the lemon sole and stuck them on the television screen in the living room. And on Buzz Lightyear’s head. Because Buzz needed a wig. By all accounts.

Another child enjoying instruction on fish filleting

The main drag though is that I really should invest in a new filleting knife. Sadly and inexplicably, the tip of my prized and rather expensive Global snapped off ages ago. Which does make cutting a fine line along the central bone difficult, let alone the long sweeping strokes needed for separating the prized fillets away from the bone. I persevered and got some decent(ish) cuts but I have to say that afterwards, I felt just as flat as the lemon sole. A true craftsman never blames his tools but after sweating and gurning my way through the job, it did occur that if I wasn’t keen on shelling out for a new knife, why didn’t I just let my fishmonger do it in a flash for me? 
Filleted-ed fish
Incidentally, I went back to him for some seafood later in the week and regaled my thoughts and concerns. He smiled and lent in saying that if ever I wanted a refresher course, I could always pop in for the afternoon and spend some time with him. He would even give me the number of a place where he gets his knives, relatively cheap. What a lovely man.

Malaysian Fried Lemon Sole with Roasted Tomato and Chilli Sambal

This is a variation of a dish we covered at Rick Stein’s Seafood School. Some purists might sniff their noses at this recipe regarding its authenticity, especially with the sambal, which is essentially a chilli-based condiment or relish. For a real humdinger of a sambal, you should check out this one by Shu Han.

But it is a very delicious recipe nevertheless. All very hot and spicy yet the lightness of the battered lemon sole still manages to shine through. A great starter.

Malaysian Fish Instramgrummed

Serves 4

3 lemon sole, filleted and skinned

175g corn flour

Sunflower oil for deep-frying

Salt and pepper

For the sambal:

350gms tomatoes cut in half

Variety of chillies (I used 1 birds eye, 2 ‘home grown’ green finger chillies and 2 regular red chillies)

3 shallots, peeled and halved

2 tbs of lime juice

2 tbs of Thai fish sauce

1 tbs of caster sugar

Sambal ingredients Unstigrommed
For the chilli sauce:

6 red finger chillies, roughly chopped

4 garlic gloves, roughly chopped

1 tps tumeric powder

5 cm piece of fresh root ginger, peeled and roughly chopped.

4 tbs sunflower oil

1 tsp salt

2 tbs rice wine vinegar

6 tbs cold water

Hot chilli sauce

First make the sambal by pre-heating the grill to high. Put the tomatoes, whole chillies and shallots on a tray and grill for 10 minutes, until blackened, turning every now and then. Cool slightly and then roughly chop by hand. Place in a bowl and then mix in the limejuice and fish sauce.

Put all the ingredients for the chilli sauce into a blender or food processor and and blitz until smooth. Transfer to a saucepan and simmer on the hob over a gentle heat for 10 minutes or until the mixture begins to separate.

Put the sunflower oil in a large pan until about a third full. Heat to 190c or until a small piece of bread dropped into the oil browns and rises to the surface. Put the chilli sauce into a shallow dish and the corn flour in another. Season the fish fillets and dip them first into the chilli sauce and then into the corn flour, making sure that the fish is coated evenly. Cook the fillets in the hot oil, only 2 or 3 at a time, otherwise the oil will cool too quickly. Fry for about 2 minutes until crisp and golden. Lift out with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.

Serve with the Roasted Tomato and Chilli Sambal.


Shu Han said…
HURRAH cheers for the name check danny. Not sure about tomatoes in sambal but I'm not judging.. Looks hell delicious anyway!

And kudos to you for filleting your own fish. I defiantly insist on doing it sometimes too, and almost always regret it. Actually, *always*.
Unknown said…
it can be a dangerous game this filleting lark and why its best left to the profs but I think we should all try it once in our lives just to say we've done it and just in case we end up on a deserted island... gorgeous looking end result though... yes please!

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