Angel fish – astonishingly versatile

AngelfishA couple of weeks ago, the new season of Master Chef SA started, and I was watching with half an eye, as I was preparing our supper – angel fish.  Imagine my surprise when the first episode concluded with a boot camp – on a wharf in the Cape Town harbour – with the contestants having to prepare a dish with, yes, angel fish!

Before we moved to McGregor, we used to eat fish regularly, and over the last 10 or so years, the range of fresh fish available in the few independent fishmongers (as opposed to large supermarket chains), has shrunk enormously.  The implications of this, beyond availability for home consumption, is profound for both our environment, and for small fishers in South Africa.  However, that’s a rant for another time and place.

Inversely proportional to the reduced choice, is the increased price.  When I first moved to Cape Town some 22 years ago, my adventure with cooking fresh fish began.  I used to ask the lady behind the counter what was nice and how to cook it.  Being cash strapped, decisions were price-driven.  Consequently, and because hake seemed boring (and not always cost effective, and I am not fond of snoek), choices were limited:  Gurnard (shad) and angel fish.  Both, I discovered, are great eating – and very underrated.  In the Western Cape, Gurnard is not frequently available, so angel fish became our usual, and almost most favourite fish.  It remains so.  Even after moving, we still go into our “old” fish monger (Plumstead Fisheries), when we are in Cape Town.  A friend who commutes, also goes into the shop to get fresh fish for us – she has now got to know Desiree who has looked after us so well for about ten or so years now.  However, I digress…

A simple supper

Returning to angel fish – we eat it at least once a week.  Angel fish is moderately flavoured and relatively firm;  the fillets are thin, if you have a medium sized fish, so they don’t take much cooking. Tom is very fond of cooking over the coals (braai or barbecue), and will do so at any opportunity.  Having grown up in a land-locked country, when we first met, eating sea fish was foreign, and the first fish meal I did for him, he ate “met lang tande” (with long teeth), and was pleasantly surprised.  The next task was to get him to braai it:  a typical Western Cape way of eating fish.  Needless to say, some nearly fourteen or so years later, he’s a convert.

All that’s a long way of telling you that nine times out of ten, our angel fish is braaied on the Weber, over a moderate to dying fire, skin side down, regularly basted with a mixture that always includes an appropriate herb, garlic, butter and olive oil.  Recently, I’ve been using my lemon and parsley pesto as a base for what what is commonly referred to as “the paint”.

This is a simple, easy meal accompanied by a garden salad and potatoes (or not) boiled in their skins.  Depending on the weather (or the season, my mood and what’s in the garden) I will make a parsley or tartare sauce or a salsa, so although we eat the same thing, often, it doesn’t get boring.

Cold fish or luscious leftovers?

With only two of us, we often have fish left over, and I’m not one to throw away good food.  Prepared over the coals, the cooled fish has a lovely, light smokey flavour.  We have, on occasion, taken cold angel fish as a contribution to a picnic – the first time, against Tom’s better judgement.  On one occasion, there was quite a quantity and he was certain that we’d have lots left over:  what would I do with that?  “Make fish cakes,” was my immediate response.  But there was none left – no fish cakes!  On that occasion, the “paint” consisted of olive oil, butter, a little garlic and some grated ginger.

Fish cakes

Fish cakes are really easy to make, even if a little messy towards the end, with the egg-dipping and crumbing.  That said, Fish Cakes they are worth it and they freeze well, making them a great stand by.  Fish cakes are also a good way of using up extra potato and parsley sauce, which is what I did when I had a surfeit of fish, a week or so ago.  To make them, break up the fish, and mash the potato and then mix the two together, well.  Add the parsley sauce (if you have it; it’s not mandatory) and a good handful of fresh, chopped parsley.  Ensure this is well mixed in, season and add a lightly beaten egg to bind.

Then divide into cakes.  I’m not a great judge of size by eye and always used to end up with a load of unevenly sized fish cakes.  Now, I prepare a tray, covered with a layer of grease-proof paper, and then use a cookie cutter as a mould.  I press the mixture firmly into the shape and then once I’ve used it all up, I roll each cake in flour, dip it in beaten egg and then roll it in commercial bread crumbs:   fish cakes ready to fry.  At this point you can freeze them if you have more than you need.

Fish cakes - ready

I love fish cakes.  For me, they are a rare but indulgent comfort food.  I’ll eat them with lashings of tomato sauce (ketchup) and peas.  I’m especially comforted when the peas are freshly picked and lightly boiled/blanched with a sprig of mint.

Angel fish paté

Of course, to make fish cakes, you need a relatively large quantity of left over fish.  Often this isn’t the case, and one way of using up little bits of left over fish is to make a paté.  This has become one of the most popular products that I sell at McGregor’s Saturday pop-up market.  As far as quantities are concerned, use your discretion….

The paté consists of the left over fish, a spritz of dry white wine, a dollop of plain, creamed cottage cheese, a sprinkling of chives (or if it’s winter, and the chives have died back, green onion leaves) as well as salt and pepper.  Mix that all together, and you have angel fish paté.   Of course you can serve it with biscuits and/or fresh bread, but I have also served it in a lettuce leaf with a baby salad as a starter.

A last word (or two)

The South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) is a World Wildlife Fund initiative and, among other things, aims to create awareness about marine conservation and encourage people to eat fish responsibly, ensuring not just the sustainability of our oceans, but also, one hopes the re-establishment of stocks.

Both Angel Fish and Gurnard are on SASSI’s green list – at the moment.

I loved what the Master Chef contestants did with their angel fish and am grateful for a slew of new ideas….


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