Praise for the whole fish

in Food and Drink · 01-11-2019 01:00:00 · 0 Comments

Chef Josh Niland is hoping to change the conversation around fish cookery and encourage us to eat much more than the odd fillet.

Open Australian chef Josh Niland's new cookbook and you will see a literal representation of its title - a whole fish (a bass grouper), severed into its many edible, cookable parts. All 31 of them. There are, it turns out, far more parts of a fish that deserve a lick of heat and hit a of salt than you might think.

The Whole Fish Cookbook distils Niland's belief that we should treat fish cookery with the same confidence we do meat, in terms of the actual hob action as well as the butchery that comes first.

His aim is to arm us with some methods "beyond just pan frying", to diversify the kind of fish we're bringing home, and make us think about seafood a little differently.

Take a tuna cheek compared to a beef cheek. Sure, you'll cook them for different lengths of time, but, Niland notes, "you can braise a beef cheek in red wine, so why can't I do that with tuna? And why can't I serve it with mashed potatoes and a little onion and bacon and do a tuna cheek bourguignon?"

The chef, who heads up celebrated seafood restaurant Saint Peter in Sydney, Australia, may be a seafood aficionado now, but by no means did he grow up on the beach. He recalls that a local river did cut through his town though, and his mum would take him there every so often. "We would make a dough out of flour, water and Vegemite, then we'd put it on a hook and literally throw it in and see what we could catch," he remembers, with a laugh. "I was always amused that we could catch stuff with such primitive bait."

His mum would show him how to gut the fish ("You wouldn't pull any of the pin bones out, that was too much work") before dusting it with flour and cooking it in a pan, spraying it with canola oil.

"It was not a luxe fish set up that I grew up with, but it was an understanding that you catch it, then you cook it and eat it." That respect for the fish is built into the methods and techniques he advocates for now.

"To buy a sweaty piece of salmon coming out of a little packet, I think, is doing a further disservice to the fish," he explains. "You're not getting a great sense of what the flavour of the fish is, you're just getting the omega-3s you're craving."

Instead, he is interested in 'fish-to-gill' cooking, dry handling (not rinsing fish under water), dry ageing and curing (like you would meat), and not always reaching to place a fillet in a pan.

Here are some different ways to approach cooking fish from Josh Niland

Crumbed sardine sandwich

A fish finger sandwich taken to the next level.

"Who doesn't love a crumbed fish sandwich on soft white bread?" asks Australian seafood chef Josh Niland. "It's important to fry the sardines in ghee in a pan rather then deep-frying, as the flavour is much better and the degree of cooking is easier to control.

"Yoghurt tartare sauce could be substituted for a hot sauce or mayonnaise, if you like. This sandwich is so versatile and a number of different fish work perfectly here, including herring, whiting, bream or flathead."


(Serves 2)

150g plain flour

4 eggs, lightly whisked

120g white panko breadcrumbs

8 x 60g sardines, scaled, gutted and butterflied (or anchovies, herring or whiting)

70g ghee

Sea salt flakes and freshly cracked black pepper

4 slices soft white bread

100g yoghurt tartare sauce


1. Start by flouring, egg washing and crumbing the butterflied sardines, being sure to leave the tails of the fish uncrumbed.

2. Heat the ghee in a frying pan over a high heat and cook the crumbed sardines, in batches, on one side for one minute, or until golden and crisp, then flip to the other side and fry for a further 10-20 seconds. Remove from the pan and season liberally.

3. Cut the crusts off the bread. Spread some of the sauce over two of the slices of bread from edge to edge, then arrange four sardines on top. Add the remaining sauce on top and then the remaining slices of bread.

4. Serve with the golden edges of the sardine showing around the edges of the bread and the little tails exposed at one end.

BBQ Blue Mackerel

A seriously sophisticated lunch.

"A burnt tomato has never tasted so good," says Aussie chef Josh Niland. "This dressing is a delicious accompaniment for richer flavoured fish like mackerel, tuna or herring, but make sure to only half-cook the mackerel on the grill and allow the warmth of the tomatoes and the hot toast to finish the cooking."


(Serves 4)

1 x 300g blue mackerel (alternatively mullet, herring, sardines)

60ml extra-virgin olive oil

Sea salt flakes and freshly cracked black pepper

2 slices good-quality sourdough bread

For the tomato dressing:

300g cherry tomatoes, halved

75g capers

125g French shallots, finely sliced into rings

2tsp caster sugar

100ml chardonnay vinegar or white-wine vinegar with a pinch of sugar

50ml fish garum (see below)

200ml extra virgin olive oil


1. To produce the garum, start by adding 50% of water to the total amount of heads, bones and scraps you have from small fish, such as sardine, mackerel, anchovies or trevally, then to this total quantity add 20% of fine salt. Mix together, transfer to a mason jar, seal and place in a circulator bath set to 40°C (104°F). Leave for seven days, stirring once daily.

It is possible to produce a garum without a circulator bath but I would suggest investing in one if you intend to try to produce this sauce as fish waste can be temperamental. If you don't have one, then use a sterilised mason jar and store in a dark place at room temperature, stirring every day. Make sure that the gall bladder is removed as it will make the finished sauce extremely bitter. This recipe is versatile and can be adapted to produce scallop, prawn (shrimp) or cuttlefish garums.

2. For the dressing, burn the tomato halves, cut side down, in batches if necessary, in a heavy, cast-iron pan over a high heat for six minutes, or until softened. Once all the tomatoes are burnt, add the remaining ingredients and leave for 30 minutes before serving. Keep warm.

3. Place the mackerel in the middle of a chopping board with the tail facing you and the belly cavity exposed and open. Using a sharp knife, cut down one side of the central spine and remove the fillet as you would if you were going through the top side of the fish, but when you reach the point where the fillet is off but still attached to the head, turn the fish so the head is now facing you and, using the top third of the knife, split the head in half. This will result in a fillet that still has the tail and the head intact. Remove the pin bones. Repeat on the other side, but this time lay the fish flat to the work surface and cut the fillet through the top of the fish ensuring that the head and tail are still attached to the fillet. (If this is too challenging, just remove the fillets as you would normally or get your fishmonger to do this.)

4. For the charcoal grill, make sure the grill is hot and the charcoal has cooked down to hot embers.

5. Brush the skin of the mackerel with a little olive oil and season with sea salt. Grill on the skin for two to three minutes until coloured and the flesh is warm to the touch, then remove and brush the fish skin with a little more olive oil and season with a little more salt and a touch of pepper.

6. Brush the bread with olive oil and grill for one minute on each side until smoky and well coloured. Arrange the toast on a plate, spoon the tomato dressing over the toast, then place the mackerel on top. Serve whole or cut to share with friends.

Sweet and sour albacore

A smart dinner party option.

"This was one of the first dishes I put on the menu at Fish Face in Sydney as a young chef and I am still as proud of it now as I was 12 years ago," says Australian chef Josh Niland. "Yellowfin tuna, bonito or blue mackerel are all great alternate species."


(Serves 6)

600g trimmed centre-cut albacore loin (alternatively mackerel or tuna)

60ml olive oil

1 head white radicchio, leaves torn into bite-sized pieces

Sea salt flakes and freshly cracked black pepper

3tbsp roasted hazelnuts

Sweet and sour currant sauce:

120ml extra virgin olive oil

150g French shallots, finely diced

150ml white wine

375ml white wine vinegar

150ml water

75g caster sugar

125g dried currants

Sea salt flakes and freshly cracked black pepper


1. Preheat the oven to the lowest possible temperature.

2. For the sweet and sour sauce, heat the oil in a saucepan and sweat the shallots over a low heat for 15 minutes until just golden. Add the wine, vinegar, water, sugar, currants and a little salt and pepper and simmer briskly for four minutes, until the shallots are very tender and the sauce is thick and syrupy. You should have 225ml of sauce after the reduction. Cool and chill until needed.

3. Cut the fish you're using into even-sized quarter planks, then chill, uncovered, in the refrigerator.

4. Place a wire rack inside a baking tray to act as a trivet to cook the albacore on. Cut some baking paper to fit the size of the wire rack and, using a small knife, cut enough holes over the paper to allow the juices to strain through during cooking. Arrange the fish on the prepared wire rack and place in the oven. The oven should be between 90-100°C (194-212°F) throughout the cooking process. If you feel the oven is hotter than this then rest a pair of tongs or a wooden spoon in the door to hold the oven ajar. The internal temperature for the fish should be 40°C (104°F) when measured with a probe thermometer. Ideally, the fish should still look quite raw but with a gently cooked texture (be careful here as, unfortunately, albacore dries out very quickly during cooking).

5. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a frying pan over a high heat and saute the radicchio leaves. Season well with salt and, at the last minute when the leaves are blistered and lightly wilted, add the roast hazelnuts and four generous tablespoons of the sweet and sour sauce. Keep warm.

6. Leave the fish to rest briefly, then slice three slices per portion. Brush with olive oil, season with sea salt, cracked black pepper and drape over the sweet and sour radicchio and hazelnuts. Serve.

The Whole Fish Cookbook: New ways to cook, eat and drink by Josh Niland, published by Hardie Grant. Available now.


Be the first to comment on this article
Interactive Topics, send us your comments/opinion on this article.

Please note that The Portugal News may use selected comments in the printed edition of the newspaper.