It’s a particularly Irish trait, I find, being somewhere perfectly lovely in our own country, only to pitch it unfavourably against another, supposedly more glamorous, place. Many times I’ve been happily dabbling my toes in warm(ish) turquoise water somewhere in West Cork or Connemara, only to hear someone say, “Wouldn’t you almost think you’re in the Bahamas?” Perhaps it’s due to feeling so lucky, as a small child, to make it to the beach at Portballintrae on sunny days, instead of being stuck on our farm making hay, but when summer months come, any sunny beach – as long as the crowds aren’t too crazy – is fine by me.
This summer, it’s all a little different of course, and my land-locked, sand-starved feet are quite naturally a lot more itchy than usual. But if I cannot bring them to Cala Moli, Puglia or Portstewart Strand, the seaside will definitely be coming to my kitchen and my plate, for nothing evokes idyllic summer holidays quite like eating great fish al fresco.
I’m thinking a lot right now about that spanking fresh, fennel-scented, chargrilled bream fished just a few metres from a Sardinian taverna terrace, a pungent bouillabaisse, devoured at the Miramar in Marseille, a warming Black Dog chowder on Martha’s Vineyard, mussels and chips at Les Vapeurs in Trouville, or the “trust me, you just have to try these” conch fritters at Goatie’s on Petit St Vincent.
It’s fascinating how these dishes, inextricably linked to a heightened sensorial experience, are more deeply etched in your memory than others. Food tourism marketeers are still trying to find the formula for what makes a simple holiday meal so memorable. It’s a complex combination of surprise, authenticity, cultural novelty and the intense joy generated from feeling of freedom.
In Ireland, we are now fully embracing the wonderful riches our seas hold, thanks in no small part to entrepreneurs like Niall Sabongi, whose Seafood Café, Klaw and Klaw Poké at last allowed us to enjoy super-fresh fish and seafood in the informal way we have become used to abroad. Now he has opened Saltwater Grocer’s in Terenure, and if you are not in or near Dublin, his online delivery business, Sustainable Seafood, will deliver the best and most ethically fished produce, from Irish squid and seafood platters, to bass, bream and scallops, right to your door.
I am sure you are craving the places and food which make up your favourite seaside memories as much as I am, but at the same time, I’m not inclined to spoil them by trying to replicate the dishes exactly at home. No, it’s more a mood I’m after than an exactly remembered recipe. More a departure from usual habits and flavours, and a simplicity in the preparation that allows me to set the scene and then enjoy it fully. The part of the seaside restaurant experience I most want to recreate is not the plate itself, but the long stretches of lazy, blissful sunbathing which happen both before and after my espadrilled feet pop under the dining table and some icy Côtes de Provence hits my glass. Just as I imagine gentle waves breaking and swooshing over the rocks down at Ballyrisode, it’s almost as if I also need to trick myself into thinking I haven’t cooked the food at all. This means my fish dishes need to be well-behaved ones, with as much as possible prepped well beforehand and without any annoying wilting, dryness or sogginess, and most of all, where exact timing of multiple components when serving is banned. The recipes I’ve created for you, then, are not only full of briny, nostalgic flavours, but they are easy to prep in advance, to reheat and, at a pinch, transport to the beach to be cooked over a fire.
But if no beach is available, just find the sunniest spot you can, enough ice to chill your wine, the soundtrack from your favourite seaside holiday and, once you have feasted on some great fish, lean back, close your eyes and imagine there’s warm, white sand trickling between your toes once more.
Skillet Roast Sea Bass
One of the happier by-products of the past year is Bia Rebel’s range of ramen kits and condiments, tried and tested by their faithful clients. We love their chicken salts on meat and avocados, but also on grilled fish and seafood. This would also work well with whole bream, trout, mackerel or sardines. I find oven skillet cooking a lot handier and easier to time, than the tyrannical barbecue, unless you have staff, or a master griller partner who is willing to carry out your orders to a T – and probably miss all the fun.
10 minutes preparation
35-40 minutes cooking
• 3 or 4 tablespoons olive oil
• 5 or 6 medium, reasonably firm potatoes, peeled and diced
• 3 or 4 garlic cloves, crushed
• 5 or 6 baby garlic stems (or scallions)
• 2 or 3 green chillis (optional)
• 2 medium sea bass, gutted
• Salt and pepper
• 1 lime
• 2 handfuls parsley
• Bia Rebel chicken salt – or another spice mix.
1. Heat the oven to 190°C, then heat some olive oil in the skillet and lightly brown the potato chunks – seasoned with salt and pepper – with the garlic and chilli if you are using it.
2. Stuff the fish cavities with lime and parsley, drizzle with a little oil, season them well with the chicken salt and set them on the hot potatoes.
3. Sprinkle the garlic or scallions over the top of the fish then roast for 20 minutes, until the top of the fish is nicely grilled.
4. Turn it over, stirring the potato pieces underneath so they brown evenly, and finish cooking for another ten minutes or so. You could also finish off the cooking on an outside fire. Just cover everything with foil and don’t let it cool down completely.
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