I have to admit, I'm not very good at improvising when it comes to cooking. Most of my friends have, at some point, asked me when I am going to go on Masterchef. Most of them, however, have never watched Masterchef, and if they had, I believe they wouldn't be asking the question. Firstly, because they would realise that if I went on Masterchef I'd be subjecting myself to the kind of humiliation that scars for life (something that, fortunately, I haven't experienced since I was ten and my sadistic, psychotic P.E. teacher used to try and get me, the least flexible, athletic person in the WORLD, to do gymnastic manoeuvres in front of my entire year); and secondly, because I am just not that kind of cook. I would fall flat at the first hurdle of Masterchef, just as I often literally fell flat at the first hurdle during P.E. All contestants have to pass the first round before they can continue: the Invention Test. They are presented with a huge (beautiful) bench of ingredients and have an hour to create a dish (or sometimes two) from them. It's often the most amusing moment for those who, like me, are watching the programme from behind the safety of a computer, and can chortle at the contestants' ridiculous combinations and attempts to impress, which are met with scorn by the formidable Greg and John.
I may chortle, however, but I do so out of sheer horror at the idea of ever having to undergo such a test myself. Sure, I can cook, but when I'm not using recipes I tend to only branch out when I'm building on a basic idea that I know works. I'm not sure I could cast my eye over that lovely bench of wonderful ingredients, come up with a successful formula, and cook it to perfection in the required time. Maybe if I had two hours, in which to run through all sorts of possibilities in my head. Who knows.
Anyway, the reason I mention this is something similar happened to me the other day. Except rather than a bench of ingredients, I had the entirety of Oxford's Covered Market at my disposal. I'd gone along with a shopping list in my head, intending to make spaghetti with parsley, garlic, razor clams and white wine, having seen some beautiful razor clams at the fishmongers' the day before. To my immense dismay, they were gone. Sold out. Which I found slightly surprising, as razor clams are not the best-known of shellfish. Even I have never cooked with them, and I pride myself on attempting to cook everything I can, especially if it's unusual. I cast my eye around the fishmongers' display of icy delights in panic, attempting to come up with an alternative meal in my head. Sure, I could have just used normal clams instead, but I wanted to save that pasta recipe for a time when I can get my hands on the razor variety.
Two things caught my eye, because they stood out from the regulars that are always on display (salmon fillets, tuna steak, mackerel, hake, skate, prawns, mussels...). Large, rounded tilapia, and a box full of whiting. Tilapia are, according to Wikipedia, the fifth most important fish in fish farming because of their large size, rapid growth, and palatability. They grow to full size in under six months, and are a good replacement for our dwindling cod stocks, because of their white flesh and fairly mild flavour. Whiting is a member of the cod family (though the fish are smaller), and is another good cod replacement. I'd never seen it before, and thought it was rather handsome, with its beige-coloured skin and plump body. It was also much cheaper than a lot of the other fish - about £3 for a whole fish, which would easily feed two. I can never resist the lure of the new, and I find fresh whole fish irresistible. However, these fish were too big to serve a whole one per person, so I went for fillets instead.
I've never cooked with whiting before, or cod really, for that matter - largely because it's not the most ethical of fish, nor the most interesting. But I know that cod with clams and bacon is a bit of a classic recipe, and as the fishmonger did have clams of the normal variety, I got some of those along with a couple of whiting, filleted. I pan-fried the fillets, dredged in seasoned flour, and served them on crushed potatoes with parsley, along with a sauce of bacon, chives, clams and white wine. The fish was delicious - it really did taste just like cod, but without the guilty conscience. The seasoned flour gives it a lovely crispy skin. The bacon isn't essential, if you're a fish-eating vegetarian, but it adds a nice saltiness and depth of flavour, though you get most of that flavour from the liquid released by the clams. You could substitute parsley for chives if you like, or even dill.
Whiting with clams and bacon recipe (serves 3-4):
Heat the oven to 160C. Dredge four fillets of whiting in flour mixed with salt, pepper, and chopped chives. Heat some olive oil and a knob of butter in an oven-proof, non-stick pan and, when hot, put the fillets in skin-side down. Press down until the skins are crispy, then flip over. Cook for a couple of minutes then put the pan in the oven. Keep an eye on it - just check for done-ness after a few minutes and be careful not to overcook the delicate fillets.
Meanwhile, chop some bacon (100g or so) and pan-fry until crispy. Add a couple of finely chopped garlic cloves, and cook in the bacon fat until softened. Pour in a large glass of white wine and, while it's bubbling, add 400g fresh clams, rinsed. Turn the heat up and stir every now and then until all the clams have opened (throw away any that don't). Add a handful of chopped chives.
Serve the whiting fillets on top of crushed potatoes (or mashed potatoes) with the clam sauce drizzled over.