It’s Alex’s job to ask fishermen what they’re catching around here. But a lot of them aren’t used to his favorite line of questioning. He’s obsessed with finding out what they’ve got that they didn’t actually mean to land. Fishermen going after popular fish like cod, haddock, and halibut inevitably pull in other fish that aren’t so well known. Bycatch. Some say “trash fish.” Not Alex. He loves it.
Then he leaves it up to me to figure out how to serve it at the Shack so you can learn to love it too. I think that expanding our taste for fish beyond the usual suspects is not only a good thing for wild fish populations, it’s a good thing for eaters, too. The wild red hake we’re seeing now is an easy one: it’s sweet, white, and firm. And its cylindrical shape turns out nice fat fillets that look great on the plate.
No use asking Alex what to do with any of these “new” fish. When he’s just fallen for one, he always says the same purist thing: “Just sear it in a pan with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Had it that way for lunch. Delicious.”
Our friend Teresa was in the market today listening to Alex go on about hake. She learned to cook in Spain, and she says hake, merluza, is a favorite there, especially on the cool northern coast of the Basque country. When Teresa tells us how the Spaniards do things, we listen, and here’s why:
Merluza Estilo Santurce – Basque Style Hake with Sherry Vinegar
1 1/2 lbs. fresh hake fillet (preferably cut from the thicker end), sliced into four portions
1/2 cup fruity olive oil
8 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced crosswise into thin rounds
2 dried cayenne peppers (or one teaspoon hot red pepper flakes)
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar (the label in Spanish will say d.o. vinagre de Jerez; the longer-aged reserva is best)
sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
Pat the fillets dry and season them with a good pinch of salt and a quick grind of pepper.
Heat the olive oil in a small skillet. Gently fry the garlic and the dried chiles or red pepper flakes in the oil, stirring until the garlic slices begin to turn golden. Remove the pan from the heat, giving the garlic another turn or two––it continues to cook even off the fire and you want it lightly toasted, not dark and bitter.
Spoon out four tablespoons of this aromatic oil into a well-seasoned larger skillet (one that is big enough to hold the four fillets comfortably), and heat it to shimmering hot.
Place the hake pieces in the hot skillet, flesh-side down, and let them sear about two minutes, undisturbed, until they begin to brown. Flip the fillets so they’re skin side down, and give them about three more minutes so the skin crisps a little and the fish begins to cook through (it is okay for the fillet to stay slightly translucent in the center). Control the heat throughout the browning process so the pan stays hot, but not smoking. You’ll be using the pan juices in the sauce, so don’t let them burn.
Take the skillet off the fire and remove the fish to warm plates or a platter; cover it loosely with a sheet of aluminum foil to keep it warm while you finish the sauce.
Put the pan back on a low flame to warm the juices that remain from the fish searing. Stir in the reserved small skillet-full of olive oil, golden garlic, and red pepper flakes. Add the sherry vinegar––it will spatter a bit at first, just add it all, turn off the fire, then give it a stir to combine everything well.
Spoon the sauce, garlic slices and all, over the fillets and serve.