Not to be outdone by my cheffy mates, I thought I would come up with my own Taste of Auckland dish: Fish. Salad. Extra virgin olive oil. Stuff to squirt out of a bottle. Stuff to scatter here. Stuff to scatter there. Microgreens. Flower petals. Herb fronds … Ha! Reckon mine looks as good as theirs. Hmmm. Hmmm. Swallow. Bow. If I can do it, so can you!
Basil Oil ¾ cup basil leaves, gently packed 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil Flaky sea salt Apple & Fennel Salad 1 Tbsp lemon juice 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil ½ tsp flaky sea salt Pinch caster (superfine granulated) sugar 1 tsp creamy Dijonnaise mustard 1-2 medium fennel bulbs 1-2 green apples (I used Granny Smith) 2-4 fillets skinned and boned white fish 1-2 Tbsp standard flour Flaky sea salt 1-2 Tbsp olive oil 1-2 Tbsp butter 4-8 cherry tomatoes, halved Microgreens and edible flower petals Fennel fronds (hopefully you’ll find some on the fennel bulbs!)
When there is a choice, use the smaller amount for 2 serves, and the larger amount to serve 4.
1 Make the basil oil first. Put basil in a sieve and pour over boiling water from a kettle. Plunge sieve with basil into a large bowl of icy cold water. Lift out sieve, shake, then roll basil in paper towels. Chop coarsely and transfer to a mini processor bowl or coffee grinder. Add oil and salt and blitz. If you do not have one of these machines, chop basil as finely as you can with a large knife, then transfer to a bowl and stir in oil and salt. Steep basil oil while preparing other ingredients. Alternatively, make it a day ahead, cover and keep at room temperature.
2 Next make the apple and fennel salad. Whisk lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, salt, sugar and mustard together in a bowl. Trim root end of fennel, wash well and shake dry. Slice fennel thinly on a mandoline, discarding stalky ends (leaving the stalky ends on until you finish slicing gives you something to grip when using a mandoline). If the apple skin is unblemished and nice and taut leave it on (if it is greasy and tough, get it off!). Slice apple on mandoline. If you don’t have a mandoline, use a sharp knife to cut fennel and apple. Put fennel and apple in bowl with dressing and toss well.
3 Check fish for scales and bones by running your fingers along the fillets. If fillets have a fat piece and a skinnier piece, separate the pieces with a sharp knife. Have flour ready with a pinch of salt on paper towels. Heat the oil in a frying pan big enough to fit the fish. When oil is hot, drop in the butter. Quickly dust fish fillets with flour, then tap each one gently to knock off excess flour. Lower them into the sizzling butter, adding the fatter pieces of fillet first as they will take longer to cook. The butter should be sizzling!
4 Put tomatoes around the fish, cut side down. Cook tomatoes for a few minutes, then remove to a side plate. Let the fish take on a good golden colour, then flip and cook the other side briefly, just to cook the flour. Do not overcook the fish (remember it will continue to cook with residual heat once it is removed from the pan). Transfer to a large plate when done and season with sea salt.
5 Put a pile of salad on each plate and top with a fish fillet. Dot the plate with tomatoes, edible flowers, microgreens and fennel fronds, and if you want the plate to look like it’s come straight from a top-notch café, dribble a little basil oil here and there (it’s particularly good in the tomatoes). That’s it. Scoff!
This salad is wonderfully fresh, quite lemony, and cleans up your palate after something rich. It would work with pork cutlets, a ham steak sizzled in butter until golden and crisp (yum!), or with duck. Do other stuff with it if it takes your fancy – add chopped capers for even more tang, or throw in some slivered dill pickles and stuff it into chicken burgers. Now there’s a thought …