Pollack masterclass with Paul Ainsworth

06 May 2011
Pollack masterclass with Paul Ainsworth

Great British Menu contestant Paul Ainsworth is chef-patron of Number 6 restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall, and he's a big fan of pollack, one of the few members of the cod family you can serve without annoying the sustainability campaigners. Here he tells Michael Raffael the best way to prepare this fish

First things first! "Pollack" or "Pollock", both spellings are correct.

In the UK this member of the cod family has only recently found a place in restaurant kitchens. Partly, it has benefited from the debate about species sustainability. Partly it results from chefs' search for the freshest fish, be it line-caught or landed by day-boats that hug the coast. Partly its size, comparable to farmed salmon, makes it attractive for portioning. Its taste and texture stand comparison with similar white fish.

* See the pictures for this masterclass on Table Talk

Its final attraction, of course, is price. Paul Ainsworth, at Number 6 in Padstow, is paying about £5 per kg. A fish he has bought from Newlyn that cost him £20 will yield 10 main course portions (£19 inc. VAT on his à la carte). In France he could be paying almost double for "Lieu jaune de ligne". He would certainly be paying more for it than for cod.

From a practical point of view, any recipe for, say, bass will cross over to pollack. Both are round, white fish. Both handle in the same way. The parallel is interesting. A generation ago, chefs had to work hard to persuade their diners to try bass. Now it's an accepted menu item. How pollack does, depends more on who is cooking it. If customers trust the chef, they'll try the dish.

At Number 6 Paul Ainsworth has been serving and selling this close relative of cod since 2007. On the other side of the Camel Estuary in Rock, Nathan Outlaw uses it too. Established in north Cornwall, it's on the verge of becoming a mainstream fish.

Line-caught pollack

Price varies day to day, according to size and source. In Cornwall, it fluctuates around £5.50 per kg for head on, gutted and scaled fish.

1 x 4 kg fish (roughly the size of a farmed salmon) yields up to 10 trimmed, 140g "pavé" portions.

Number 6's pollack dish with new potatoes, crabmeat, shrimp and foraged seashore vegetables sells for £19 inc. VAT - representing a gross profit of 65%.

Size, freshness and condition
To obtain portions that look good on the plate, work with larger fish. Pollack can tip the scales at 7kg, but one that's half that weight is a good commercial size. Smaller ones could be suitable for frying or adding to fish soups and stews.

When buying from day boats that have small catches, the classic quality points: rounded eyes, bright red gills and no traces of darkening blood are good indicators of freshness.

If you trust your source of supply, specify gutted and scaled fish. It frees up kitchen time and saves on mess.

Although freshness is critical, wait until rigor mortis wears off before preparing round fish: not for the taste, but for the ease of handling.

The texture is a little softer than cod's. It should still produce firm cooked portions. If the flesh crumbles or if it "gapes" (the individual flakes separate), it's a sign of either a fish in poor condition, one that has been handled badly by the fisherman or poorly filleted.

In white fish, you may find the odd parasitic worm in the belly flap. This is normal and more common with inshore-caught cod and pollack.

Filleting and trimming
The knife: sharpen it before use. The smoother the surface of the prepared fillet, the better it will look and cook.

The technique: don't make small, jagged cuts. Keep the blade as flat to the plane you are cutting as is practical. Where you can, feel the edge against the bone.

The top fillet Put the gutted and scaled fish on the chopping board.

Following the line of the head, cut under the pectoral fin from the backbone to the belly-flap.

Spin the fish around so it's easier to cut along the backbone. Cut down the line of the back and over the dorsal fin to the tail.

Don't, at this stage, cut beyond the line of the vertebrae.

Cut across the fillet, just above the tail.

Use the knobbly vertebrae as a guide to cut over the backbone and along the bones running down the belly flap.

Still following the backbone, continue cutting down to the tail, over the anal fins and remove the fillet.

The second fillet This is almost a mirror image of the top fillet, but tweaked.

Cut under the pectoral fin from the backbone to the belly-flap.

Cut down the line of the back and over the dorsal fin to the tail.

Cut across the fillet, just above the tail.

Press down on the belly-flap with one hand to keep the fish from moving on the board and cut over the backbone and along the bones running down the belly flap.

Cut down to the tail and remove the second fillet with the anal fins attached. Turn the fish flesh side up and cut them away.

Trimming Put the fillet on the board and trim the pelvic fin on the belly flap.

Use tweezers to pin-bone the fillet. There's probably a bone or two at the head end and a few more running down the line of the vertebra. Dipping tweezers in water helps.

Trim any uneven edge. Cut away the thin end of the tapering belly flap.

Turn over the fish so it's skin-side up.

Cut into portions (5 x 140g approx in this case).

Give each portion a final trim around the edges.

Fish stock
Pollack bones and trimmings make good stock. Discard the eyes and gills from the head. Chop the bones small. Simmer 20 minutes - the less water added the more concentrated the stock. Backbones sweated in a little pomace without water makes a concentrated sauce base.

Tricks of the trade
When buying a whole pollack, cod or haddock, the larger it is the more it tends to cost per kg.

Fish gutted on board a day-boat by the fisherman will keep its freshness better.

When filleting, use one hand to keep the fish from moving; especially with the second fillet.

Run the blade along the vertebrae after filleting: it should rattle if the knife-work was precise and there's no flesh on the bones.

Keep a bowl of water for cleaning tweezers when pin-boning.

Chop fish bones small to extract more flavour when making stock.

Instead of adding "salt and pepper" without thought, adjust the seasoning blend to the dish.

Shallow-fry at a low or moderate temperature to prevent fish "pavés" contracting and losing their shape.

(Serves one)
Seasoned salt (see note)
140g pollack pavé
15ml pomace
Squeeze of lemon juice
60-70g crabmeat and seashore vegetables
15g brown shrimps in brown butter
80-100g sliced Cornish new potatoes
1tbs brown butter and veal glaze

Note: Instead of salt and pepper, Paul Ainsworth blends plain salt with a little Sharwood's Mild Korma and leaves it to dry out above the range before use. It gives a lift to a fish that is, by itself, quite bland.

Dust the fish with a little seasoned salt on both the skin and flesh sides.

Heat the oil in a frying pan, just enough for the fish to sizzle on contact with it.

Add the fish skin-side down. Let it fry gently rather than fiercely so the fish keeps its shape and texture. Don't clock watch, but keep an eye on the flesh which becomes progressively more opaque.

When it's cooked most of the way through and the skin is golden, turn the fish on to the flesh and sear for a few seconds.

Turn it first on to one side and then the other to finish cooking. Take the fish out of the pan and drain it on absorbent material.

The residual heat in the fish will finish cooking it.

Add a squeeze of lemon to the pan and shake it to emulsify the jus. Spoon a little on the pavé during dressing.

Spoon the crabmeat and seashore vegetables onto the plate.

Put the fish on top skin-side up.

Spoon the shrimps heated in brown butter around the fish together with sliced potatoes. Finish with pea shoots and a trail of veal glaze.

Brown crabmeat and seashore vegetables
Make the crabmeat base. Blend 400g brown crabmeat with 100g crème fraîche, 80g mayonnaise, a little lemon juice and salt.

When each order come through to the kitchen, blanch a small handful of seashore vegetables in boiling water for a few seconds only, drain them and let them dry out on the side of the stove before folding into about 60g crabmeat.

Cornish new potatoes

Put the new potatoes in cold salted water with mint, bay leaves and thyme. Boil till tender, drain and slice quite thickly. Keep hot in a butter and fish stock emulsion. To finish, take out of the emulsion and sprinkle a little chopped chervil and chives on them.

* See the pictures for this masterclass on Table Talk

Paul Ainsworth
Paul Ainsworth
Opening his first restaurant in "Padstein" has proved an inspired choice for Paul Ainsworth. The ex-Pétrus sous chef who learned his craft first with Gary Rhodes, Gordon Ramsay and then Marcus Wareing moved to Cornwall in 2005 and bought out his partner three years later.

He has a distinctive approach to creating dishes: "I always start with the main ingredient and work backwards." There's no padding out with garnishes, no attempt at dotting separate elements around a plate. When he puts pollack on his menu it's because it justifies its place.

It's this no-nonsense approach which has him to the finals of this year's BBC2's Great British Menu as the winner of the South-west England heat.

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