It's almost an empty phrase to say that a food combination "just works"; what does that even mean? Lots of things work, food-wise, but every now and then you come across a pairing of ingredients that leaps out at you. At a restaurant a while ago I tried a dish of chicken pâté with toast and a quince chutney. I'm no stranger to the combination of meat and fruit, but this was the first occasion on which it had tasted absolutely perfect to me. Normally I just enjoy fruit and meat because it involves two things I like; in this case, the two became more than just the sum of their parts; you could barely distinguish in that exquisite mouthful where fruit ended and meat began. Every now and then I come up with a recipe that pleasantly surprises me, when things I hoped might taste nice together in my head work out better than I thought. This is one of them.
It's also surprising because it involved something I've never cooked before: herring. I went to the fishmonger intending to buy tilapia for a tikka-marinated fish dish, but saw these beautiful glistening herrings lined up on the ice. I can never resist something new, so I bought three (and, incidentally, was taken aback by how cheap they were). I read a recipe in the Telegraph recently for roast herring with tahini sauce and freekeh, which is a type of grain that I've never had any luck finding. Undeterred, I figured I'd just make a variation of it using things I had in the cupboard/fridge. Apart from spinach, I had everything for this dish sitting around in the kitchen. This hardly ever happens, and I relished not having to tear manically around the markets for some obscure ingredient that would prove vital.
I love tahini. It's the sesame seed paste they use to make hoummous, which gives it that deliciously moreish, silky quality. I've used it before in a few Middle Eastern recipes, usually mixed with yoghurt, water and lemon juice to make an absolutely sublime sauce. In this case I did the same, crushing a clove of smoked garlic into it too. The result was a little like hoummous in flavour but much stronger and more tangy. I can't recommend this sauce enough; it goes beautifully with so many things. It's ideal as a replacement for yoghurt alongside rice pilaffs or spiced lamb, but also goes very well with fish and roasted vegetables.
Instead of the freekeh and Swiss chard in the original recipe, I used bulghur wheat, mixed with cinnamon, allspice, salt and pepper. I pan-fried some chopped spinach (huge leafy bunches of the proper stuff, not the clinically packaged, uniform baby leaves you find in the supermarket), stirred it in, and finally mixed in some pomegranate seeds. I'm not sure why; I think it was probably a knee-jerk reaction to the tahini, bulghur and allspice pairing. I also love the glistening, jewel-like appearance of a scattering of pomegranate seeds. They perk up any dish, both in appearance and in flavour.
Finally, the herring, which I just roasted in the oven for about 15 minutes. I anticipated it would taste like mackerel; in fact, I couldn't really distinguish the two, and either would make a good substitute for the other. Sardines would work too. In fact, I think in future I'd choose mackerel, simply because herring seems to have so many more fiddly little bones to deal with. The result was one of the best things I've cooked in a while, and it's so simple. The bulghur, spinach and pomegranate is great on its own and I could eat platefuls of it. However, when you mix in the tahini sauce it adds another layer of intriguing flavour and also moisture. Finally, add the succulent flakes of rich, oily fish, given the welcoming sweet burst of the pomegranate seeds, and you have something superb. Really. It just works.
Roast herring with bulghur and tahini sauce (serves 4):
- 4 large herring (or mackerel), gutted and cleaned
- 2 tbsp tahini
- 4 tbsp yoghurt
- Juice of one lemon
- 1 garlic clove
- 200g bulghur wheat, soaked in boiling water for 30 minutes and drained
- Two large bunches of spinach (or one large bag)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- Seeds of half a pomegranate
- 1/2 tsp each cinnamon and allspice
- Salt and black pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Crush the garlic with a pinch of salt in a pestle and mortar. Add the tahini and mix well, then add the lemon juice and yoghurt. Stir and mix to form a fairly runny sauce.
Roughly chop the spinach - if using a bunch you can use the stalks too if you chop them fairly finely. Heat the oil in a pan and sauté the spinach until it has wilted. Stir this into the bulghur, then add the cinnamon, allspice, pomegranate seeds and a generous amount of salt and pepper - taste to check the balance is right.
Lay the herrings on a sheet of foil on an oven tray and roast for about 15 minutes - they're ready when the flesh is opaque. Serve the herring on top of the bulghur with the tahini sauce poured on top and lemon wedges for squeezing over.