This lovely and most delicate dish, a retrolicious reminder of decades gone past, makes a show-stopping centrepiece for a cold buffet. It may look finicky, and I admit that it takes some time to prepare, but it’s a lot easier to make than it looks, and once the applause from your guests dies down you will resolve to make this for every future special occasion.
|A show-stopper of a buffet dish, and very easy to make, if you have
time and patience. Platter by David Walters
There are only two things that might present a challenge to you. One: you need to lay your hands on a very fresh, very beautiful whole trout or, failing that, a whole salmon of similar spanking freshness. Two: you will need a mandolin or a similar slicing device to cut paper-thin, even slices of cucumber. With a lot of patience and perseverance you could, I suppose, cut these using a very sharp knife, but I definitely wouldn’t attempt this without the aid of a mandolin.
I bought this beautiful trout from the Salmon Bar in Franschhoek, a restaurant that stocks as a sideline a range of locally produced smoked fish and charcuterie. I hadn’t meant to buy a fish, but I popped into the restaurant to buy some of their warm bread while I was staying with my mum over Christmas, and there on the shelves was a gleaming stack of trout so fresh they were practically still flapping. I presume that this beauty came from the esteemed Three Streams Smokehouse, famed for its superlative, sustainable smoked trout, reared in the Lesotho highlands, but as you are unlikely to find their fish outside of the Western Cape I suggest you ask your fishmonger to order you a top quality trout or – at great expense to yourself – a whole salmon from Norway or Scotland.
Another minor aggravation may be finding agar agar (also known as isinglass), a seaweed-based gelling agent. I buy mine from my favourite spice shop where it is sold as ‘China Grass’; you should be able to find it at a good speciality deli. If you can’t find it, you can use ordinary powdered gelatine, in exactly the same quantity given in my recipe below.
|Carefully press the wafer-thin cucumber slices onto the surface
of the poached trout.
Start this recipe the day before, and you cannot go wrong. And when your guests are finished tucking into the beautifully tender coral-pink flakes of fish, tip any leftovers into a lidded container and use them the next day to make a delicate fish pâté (see Cook’s Notes at the end of this post).
I have put the word ‘leaping’ in the title of this recipe because the finished fish looks as if it is jumping upstream over rock and boulder. (There is no artistic intent. The truth is that I don’t have a fish kettle, and couldn’t find a roasting dish big enough to accommodate it. So I firmly pressed the fish into a tight curve in a big ceramic lasagne dish, and I suggest you do the same with whatever suitable dish you have to hand.)
I served this with thick home-made mayonnaise flavoured with horseradish, a jab of good Dijon mustard and a whisper of garlic, but I would have used fresh dill to flavour the mayo if I’d been able to find it.
Leaping Poached Trout with Cucumber Scales
a large fresh whole trout or salmon (mine was 1.6 kg)
a thin slice of lemon, skin on
2 leeks washed, trimmed and thickly sliced, or a few slices of onion
a few stalks of parsley or celery, or both
10 whole peppercorns, or 10 generous grindings of black pepper
½ cup (125 ml) dry white wine
a big pinch of salt
1 tsp (5 ml) agar-agar, or powdered gelatine
a little lemon juice (see recipe)
a whole English cucumber, washed
Heat the oven to 160 ºC. Wipe and scale the fish, but don’t trim it or remove fins, head or tail. Lightly oil a large, high-sided roasting pan or rectangular ceramic lasagne dish, and lay the fish in it, as described above. Add the lemon slice, leeks (or onion), parsley, celery, peppercorns, wine and salt. Now pour in just enough cold water to bring the level of liquid in the pan to 15 mm (1.5 cm) deep. Tightly cover the whole tray or pan with two layers of heavy-duty tin foil and place it in the oven. Cook the fish until it is just cooked through to the bone.
(How long this will take depends on the size and shape of your fish, and you will need to use your instincts here. Open the oven after about 30 minutes and place your fingertips on the foil. It should be exceedingly hot to the touch, and the flesh should willingly yield when you press down on it. If you’re not certain that the fish is cooked, peel away the tin foil and gently lift away the skin – starting at the belly – from the thickest part of the fish. Gently push the tines of a fork into the fish: if it is beginning to fall into flakes, and has loosened from the back bone, it’s ready.)
Take the dish out of the oven and leave it to cool, still covered with tin foil, for 30 minutes. Remove the tin foil and very carefully peel the skin off the top of the fish, starting by making a cut just above the tail. It will peel off easily, although you might need to use the tip of a sharp knife to ease it free along the length of the top edge of the fish. Cut the skin neatly away just above the gills. You must do this while the fish is still slightly warm, or you won’t be able to get the skin off in one go. Now very gently slide a metal spatula under the fish to detach any skin that is sticking to the bottom of the pan. Using a large spoon, drizzle the warm poaching liquid all over the exposed fish flesh. Cover with foil again and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, use a soup ladle to spoon the cooking liquid – which will have jellied slightly, if you are lucky – into a saucepan. Discard the flavourings. Warm the stock over a gentle heat until it is just liquid, then measure out one cup (250 ml) into a small bowl. Sprinkle over 1 tsp (5 ml) of agar agar (or gelatine) and set aside for 10 minutes.
In the meantime, trim the fish. Neatly slice away any brown or fatty bits along the belly line of the fish, and gently pull off all the fins. Now lift the whole fish out of its pan and put it onto a large platter. You will probably need an extra pair of hands and several spatulas to do this. If you’d like to take the skin off the bottom of the fish, you can do this by very gently sliding a metal spatula between the flesh and the skin, and then loosening it and pulling it away, as if you are whipping out a sheet out from under a duvet!
Set the stock/agar agar mixture over a gentle heat and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, skimming off any foam as it rises. If you are using gelatine, gently warm the mixture until the gelatine has melted and the liquid is clear. Strain the liquid through a sieve lined with a close-woven clean material, such as a laundered napkin or a brand-new kitchen cloth.
Taste the strained liquid, and adjust the seasoning by adding a few drops of lemon juice to sharpen it up, plus some salt and pepper if necessary. Set aside to cool (see below).
Cut the cucumber into very fine slices using a mandolin or similar device. The slices should be transluscent and so thin they are floppy, or they will not bend neatly to the shape of the fish. Starting with the smallest slices from the thinnest end of the cucumber, and at the tail-end of the trout, neatly press the ‘scales’ in overlapping rows onto the surface of the fish. The cucumber slices will adhere easily, and your only challenge will be to place them evenly and neatly across the curved surface, starting at the spine edge and end at the belly, and adding extra slices to each row as you progress from thinner tail end to the thicker middle portion.
|Paint the lukewarm gel all over the ‘scales’, using a pastry brush.|
When you’ve covered the whole fish with cucumber scales, use a pastry brush to paint the luke-warm stock mixture all over the ‘scales’, head and tail of the fish. The liquid – if you have used agar agar – must be runny and warm when you paint it on, or it will congeal into cloudy globules. You’ll find that it sets quickly into a shining gel as you paint it over the surface of the cucumber slices. If it has started to set, reheat it very gently on the hob, or until liquefies.
Once the whole fish is neatly coated with its glaze, place it in the fridge to chill. If you think your guests might be frightened by the popping eyeball of the fish, scoop it out and replace it with half a pimento-stuffed green olive.
To serve, take the whole fish to the table with a bowl of mayonnaise. Slide a metal spatula between the top fillet and the backbone of the fish and lift out the top fillet. Pull the flesh into big chevrons and invite everyone to tuck in. Do warn them of bones, however.
To make a trout pâté with the leftovers: flake the fish and, using your fingertips, painstakingly sift through the pieces to remove any small bones. Place the fish in a large bowl and, to every cup of flakes, add 2 Tbsp (30 ml) softened butter, 2 Tbsp (30 ml) cream, sour cream or crème fraîche and ½ tsp (2.5 ml) of finely grated lemon rind. Beat until soft and combined (or blitz in a food processor) and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with hot toast.