I always get a bit excited upon discovering a brilliant new ingredient. The first time I opened a bottle of orange blossom water in Marrakech and inhaled deeply marked the start of a long love affair with its mysterious floral notes; I put it in everything from couscous to smoothies and the scent of it never fails to remind me of a day in the sun strolling past groves of orange flowers in Morocco. Similarly, truffle oil: just a drizzle gives pasta and potatoes a hugely addictive savoury flavour, and combined with parmesan it forms something almost sinfully delicious. Another favourite is the quince, which I cook in many different ways, both sweet and savoury, and which captivated me the first time I tried it (I believe it was in a lamb tagine). New to the list is red gurnard, a fish I'd never tried before but whose amazing appearance caught my attention at the fishmongers' the other day, and whose amazing taste and texture has been on my mind ever since.
The first noticeable feature of the red gurnard is the size and shape of its head. It's enormous in comparison with its body, which slowly tapers out towards the tail. Its face is almost animal-like in its shape and expressiveness, and it has a beautiful coral-coloured skin and bright red fins. Hard not to be enticed by it, glistening colourfully amongst all the drab whites and greys of sea bass, bream, and whiting. I bought a couple of whole fish, filleted, as an impulse buy, and then wandered around the covered market three times while I pondered what on earth to do with them.
Give that I'd never tried gurnard before, it was hard to know how to cook it. I do remember reading a recipe for gurnard with olives and tomatoes before, and I'd been having a craving for risotto that day, so I decided to combine the two. I picked up half a kilo of mussels as well, intending to put the meat in the risotto and save some whole mussels for a rather nice garnish. I like the combination of pan-fried fish fillets and mussels or clams, as is evident from last month's whiting with clams and bacon. It gives a nice contrast in flavour and texture, and a plate bursting with multiple varieties of seafood is always inviting.
I asked the fishmonger if I could keep the heads and bones of the gurnard, and I'm extremely glad I did. To be honest, the main reason I asked was because most of the weight of the gurnard is its head, which is enormous, so if you're paying for the whole fish and only getting some small fillets out of it, you may as well get your money's worth by keeping everything (they're about £5 each, which isn't bad for a whole fish considering how good it was - but more on that later). I used the heads to make a stock for the risotto, and I have to say that the smell of it cooking was absolutely incredible. I just brought some water to the boil with a chopped onion, carrot and stick of celery, threw in the bones and heads, a bay leaf, some salt and some black peppercorns, and let it bubble away for about 40 minutes. It's amazing how such simple things can combine to make something so wonderful. I'd encourage anyone who buys fish and has them filleted to keep the heads and bones - you can freeze them until you have time, and then make a pot of wonderful fish stock that is so superior to anything from a cube. It would be a great basis for a bouillabaisse or fish soup/stew, like fish stew with mussels, cider and chorizo.
As for the risotto, I used my normal risotto recipe but added some saffron, fennel seeds, and chopped tomatoes while it cooked, then stirred in some chopped black olives and parsley at the end, along with the meat of the cooked mussels, which I just steamed (and added their cooking juices to the stock for maximum seafood goodness). I also added the zest of an orange to the risotto. It might sound odd, but it really works. A lot of French bouillabaisse recipes add some orange zest to the broth: it doesn't overpower, but actually enhances the fish, saffron and tomato flavours.
The gurnard I just pan-fried in butter and olive oil after seasoning its skin. The fillets from a gurnard are rather thick in the middle, so take a few minutes on each side to cook, but that gives ample time for plating up the risotto and making it look pretty with some rocket, whole mussels in the shell, and chopped tomatoes.
So, how did it taste? Wonderful. I had no idea what red gurnard would taste like, but I had an inkling that it would work well with assertive Mediterranean flavours, and it certainly did. It's an amazing fish: really thick and meaty in texture, rather like monkfish, but sustainable and a fraction of the price. It's also beautiful: those coral-coloured fillets brighten up any plate, and look especially good alongside the saffron gold risotto. I'm certain I've found a new favourite fish; I can't wait to try it in other recipes. Be generous with the salt when seasoning the skin, pan-fry in hot butter to get it crispy on the outside and tender in the middle, and you have a wonderful fish supper with a clear conscience. Add a rich, unctuous tomato risotto, and you have something a perfect combination of textures and flavours.
Red gurnard and mussels with orange, tomato and black olive risotto (serves 4):
2 red gurnard, filleted - keep the heads and bones
500g live mussels, cleaned and de-bearded
Butter and olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp crushed fennel seeds
300g risotto rice
Small glass white wine
1 punnet baby plum tomatoes
Generous pinch saffron threads
Zest 1 orange
Handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley
10 black olives, pitted and finely chopped
For the stock:
Heads and bones of the gurnard
1 celery stick, roughly chopped
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 carrot, roughly chopped
5 black peppercorns
1 tsp sea salt
1 bay leaf
Generous pinch saffron
First, make the stock. Bring 1.5 litres of water to the boil in a large saucepan and add the rest of the ingredients, except the saffron - add this about 10 minutes from the end of cooking time. Simmer very gently for 30-40 minutes, then strain into a jug or pan (discard the bones and veg).
To cook the mussels, heat a little olive oil in a pan with a tight-fitting lid. When smoking, throw in the mussels and put on the lid. Shake the pan a few times, and check after a couple of minutes. When they've all opened (throw away any stubborn ones that don't), strain the cooking liquid into a bowl and reserve the mussels. When cool, pick the meat out of the shells, saving a few for garnishing. When the fish stock is ready, add the mussel juices to it.
Heat some butter and oil in a large frying pan and saute the onion and garlic until softened. Add the fennel seeds and the tomatoes, halved, and leave to soften and become mushy. Add the rice and a knob of butter and stir to coat in the butter and vegetables. Pour in the wine and allow it to become totally absorbed by the rice before adding a couple of ladlefuls of stock. When this has been totally absorbed, add another ladleful of stock - keep doing this until the rice is cooked (it should be slightly firm to the bite, not mushy, but not crunchy). When the risotto is about 5 minutes away from being ready, add the zest of the orange, the cooked mussel meat, and the chopped black olives and parsley, and check/alter the seasoning.
When the risotto is nearly done, heat some butter and olive oil in a frying pan until hot. Season the gurnard fillets (be generous with the salt on the skin) then put into the pan skin-side down. Sizzle for a few minutes then flip over and cook the other side. They will probably take around 10 minutes to cook through, depending on thickness.
Serve the fillets perched atop a mound of risotto, garnished with extra chopped tomatoes, olives, mussels in the shells and a handful of rocket. If you have a bit of fish stock left, pour some over the final dish.