Me? At sea? Heehee!

My brother is far away in the sun and I can’t help feeling that I’ve lived this moment before; rain is driving against my windows and I’m about to blog in an effort to bring warmth and sunlight into my day.  I’ll count my blessings and give thanks that I’m not a Cretan fisherman.  Now those boys see some weather.

Granted, I’ve been trapped in a snow drift, roasted alive on an airless train through the mountains, drenched in tropical downpours and even caught in a thunderstorm on a boat heading down the Mekong.  However, if you’ve made a living on the sea surrounding the beautiful Greek islands, it’s a good bet you’ll have some stories to tell.  There’s a romantic image of the Cretan people battling the landscape and the elements and at the same time living with and becoming part of them.  We’re a people known for our passion, yes, but also for a stoicism rarely seen in the pampered generations that have come to the fore in the late 20th Century.  Could I brave everything that nature threw at these determined men?  Not a chance.  I’ve spent too long drinking chocolate milk, sitting close to radiators and hailing cabs.

I may have been born in Crete, but my father (a baker) would be surprised to hear me expressing a desire to fish the waters around our homeland.  Less surprising is my love of Cretan fish soup.  As with a lot of the simple dishes of Greece, it has remained unchanged for centuries and was borne of necessity.  Fisherman would cook this beautiful soup on their boats using only tomatoes, onions and some of their catch.  The long, slow cooking would disolve the tiny bones of smaller fish and produce a thick and hearty soup to warm the men at sea.  It’s a soup that has warmed my bones this very evening as our house has done all the stoic withstanding of the elements normally reserved for the wisened face of a Cretan fisherman.  Perhaps it will comfort you too.

Cretan fisherman’s soup

250g small fish

250g chopped tomatoes

400ml fish stock

1 onion (sliced)

3 carrots (sliced)

4 tblspoons olive oil

black pepper

This recipe will make enough for two large bowls.  You can use any fish for this soup.  I used some salmon, smoked haddock and a some cod.  Remove as many of the bones as you can before you begin and cut the fish into little chunks.

Cover the fish with boiling water and simmer for about fifteen to twenty minutes.  Skim any foam off the surface and then add the tomatoes, onions and carrots.  Cover and cook gently on a low heat for two or three hours.  After the first hour, you may want to add fish stock.  I find that the liquid reduces and that topping it up with fish stock is a great way of seasoning the soup.  It’s unlikely that you’ll need to add salt, but taste the soup after two hours and season if necessary.

You’ll end up with a very rich, red soup full of soft carrots and fish that has become a part of the broth.  It’s best served with big chunks of fluffy bread so that you can soak up the olive oil.

This is the soup in it’s simplest form.  My mum makes an awesome fish soup that includes rice to bulk it up.  You could add herbs to this soup and a squeeze of lemon to freshen it up, but I love how wonderful the soup is with so few ingredients.  To me, it’s alchemy.

And now for something completely different.

It had been a while since I had eaten something for the very first time.  Standing in the fish mongers’ with the baby screaming his head off, I spotted a small box of what I recognised as samphire.  This green and salty marsh plant has been something of a trendy ingredient in recent years and I’d seen it make appearances on food shows that visited coastal towns.  Apart from having what I think is a cool name, samphire really holds no other outward appeal to me.  Having said that, as I collected my change from a purchase of squid, the fish monger followed my gaze towards the samphire resting in a box on the gleaming ice.  “Samphire.  Wanna try some?”  Above the screams of my boy, I said, “Yes, please!” and picked a little to chew on.  Salt, fresh grassy notes, something nearing asparagus?  I quite liked it.  All it needed was butter.  “I’ll have that box too, please”, I shouted nodding at the green strands of something not quite sea and not quite land.

Samphire does not keep for long.  The pressure was on to make (good) use of it.  I had some nice basa fillets which I was sure would be a good starting point.  Basa is Vietnamese cat-fish and is sustainable.  I passed the boy (now quiet) to N and started to unpack my bags.  N was happy when she saw the squid.  She’d asked me to make some more spaghetti and squid, but she had a puzzled look on her face when I pulled out the box of samphire.  “What have you got there?” she said, frowning.  “Samphire!  It tastes of the sea and I’m gonna cook it for us tomorrow!”  N looked at me like I’d just exchanged our only cow for some magic beans.  Yup, the pressure was on to make very good use of the samphire.

Simple is best.  I made a samphire and lemon cream to pour over the basa fillets after I’d steamed them.  I fried the rest of the samphire in butter and served it all with some boiled vegetables.  Apart from the large amounts of butter, it was a well-balanced meal.  Samphire really does love butter.  N was very impressed with the samphire. Probably fearing it would be disgusting, she was pleasantly surprised.  I was quietly smug because the samphire and lemon cream had been perfect for the fish and my decision to make it up as I went along had really paid off.  Now all I need to do is figure out how to stop my son screaming in public and I’ll be living the dream.

Basa fillets with samphire & lemon cream

Basa fillets

150ml double cream

2 tblspoons finely chopped samphire

1 lemon

65g butter

sea salt

black pepper

Drizzle a little olive oil onto a piece of foil large enough to make a parcel around the basa fillet.  If you love olive oil as much as I do, place the fillet on the foil and drizzle a little more on it.  Grind a little black pepper on the fillet.  Place it on a baking tray in the centre of the oven at 200 degrees Celsius for twenty-five minutes.

Meanwhile, melt half of the butter in a milk pan and add the chopped samphire.  I’d already rinsed the samphire a couple of times in cold water before chopping it to make sure that there wasn’t any sand in it.  Cook the samphire for a few minutes before squeezing the juice of half the lemon into the pan.  Next, stir in the double cream and add some pepper.  Taste it.  Samphire can be very salty, so you may not need to add any salt.  I added a little salt because the cream was too bland at this point.  If you need more lemon, add that too.  A little at a time is best.  Taste it after each addition.  You can’t take it out once it is in, but you can always add more (I can hear my mum talking there).

Keep the heat gentle and stir the cream until you’re happy with the taste.  Add the other half of the butter to the sauce and stir it until completely melted.  You can add more butter if you like, but your arteries may not thank you.

The creamy sauce is actually quite light and doesn’t overpower the flavour of the basa.  I served the fish with some samphire lightly fried in butter for two or three minutes.  Yesterday, I read a post over at kidandkitchen about samphire and egg which was great.  I think I might pair it with egg next time.  What do you think?  Have you tried samphire before?