Here is a culinary scenario for you to briefly ponder - It’s Friday night and you have just finished another not-particularly-rewarding working week. You are as hungry as a lost hiker, and decide to treat yourself and your nearest and dearest to a slap-up meal. You stroll into the restaurant, take a seat and order some drinks. After perusing the bill of fare for a time, your waiter will probably sashay up to your table and reel off a list of “specials”. So what’s the deal here? What are specials, and why do restaurants bother to offer them?
The specials list can be the result of a whole bunch of factors, depending on the type of joint you have chosen to dine in. Sometimes, a restaurant will have an iron clad menu that just never changes. These places are usually family-run joints that have been trading for what seems like for ever. They have run the same menu for years, and the poor guys in the kitchen have to make the same stuff day after day – year in, year out. The specials in a place like this simply serve to keep the chefs sane. Nobody ever orders them, with the possible exception of first-time customers; everyone else just orders the same thing they have been getting for the last 10 years.
Sometimes the specials list carries dishes that are sort of old hat, but yummy all the same. We do this often at our restaurant. The main menu is built out of dishes that are (hopefully) modern and innovative, and a jaded, tasty classic would seem out of place in this company. Enter the specials board. The sort of dishes you need to think of here are oysters Kilpatrick, fillet steak with sauce béarnaise and crème brulee.
It pains me to tell you this, but the specials list at some restaurants isn’t always something to be proud of. Anthony Bourdain said in his secret sharing book, Kitchen Confidential, “...Never order fish on a Monday...”, and he sorta has a point. Picture this – a restaurant orders in a pile of fresh cod on Friday morning, expecting a big weekend with constant turnover. For one reason or another, business turns out to be slow, and come Monday there is still a few kilos of gently stinking cod in the fridge. It’s no longer prime enough to serve up alone, so that is why you should avoid dishes like “cod chowder” and “Provencal fish soup” on Mondays.
Lastly, there is the specials list that gives birth to dishes like this one. This type of specials list is our playground. Sure, we get creative on our standard menu, but we have to ensure that those dishes are accessible enough that they will sell on a regular basis. But come the weekend, when we know that we will have plenty of customers walking through the door, we can put on dishes like this one – sorta strange, sorta wacky – but totally delicious.
Before we get to the recipe, let me tell you a little about the ingredients. Barramundi is one of the most prized eating fish in Australia. It comes from our Northern waters of Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, and can be found from small 600 gm plate-sized specimens, up to 30 kg monsters. They are marine fish, but seasonally return to freshwater estuaries to spawn. Fish caught soon after spawning can have a stunningly foul muddy taste, but this is the low point and it is a pretty rare occurrence. When Barra is good, it can be one of the best seafood experiences you can ever hope to have. It has meaty, large flaked, firm white flesh, so good substitutes would include cod (if you can find it), halibut and monkfish.
Apple balsamic vinegar is a new Australian product we have just started using, after our cheese providore alerted us to its delicious presence. A while back I mentioned this vinegar to one of our resident gourmands, and he posed the entirely understandable question – “Why?” At first I felt the same way as he did, but then I got my hands on some of this stuff – and I was simply blown away. Upon opening the bottle, I was assailed by the stunning aroma of an apple orchard right in the middle of picking time. The vinegar is syrupy and dense, and has a strongly sweet appley flavour up front. This is backed up with a diligent, yet not overpowering acidity. I was instantly hooked. This product is not exactly common, but I will give an easy to make alternative in the recipe below.
And so it all comes together on the plate. The rich, tang of the sea flavour of barramundi is brusquely combined with the mild onion taste of quickly-cooked leek; crisp, smoky bacon and the densely layered flavours of apple vinegar fill out the picture. OK, so the idea is a little "out there man", but the concept meets up in seamless harmony with one simple mouthful – trust me.
Preheat your oven to 200° C (390° F). Cut the roots and leafy green top off the leek and discard. Cut the remaining white part of the leek into 5 cm lengths. Cut these lengthways in half, then cut each half into 5 mm wide batons – again cutting lengthways. What you should end up with is a pile of leek matchsticks.
Place the parsley, garlic, a pinch of salt, and a goodly amount of black pepper in a large bowl and set aside. Place the vinegar and extra virgin olive oil in a smaller bowl and stir it up a little (it will remain separate). Bring a small saucepan of salted water to the boil.
If the fish still has its skin on, run the blade of a knife across to remove any remaining scales. This will also remove any moisture in the skin which will help it crisp up and leave it crunchily delicious after cooking. Place a heavy-based, non-stick frypan (preferably one with a heatproof handle) on medium to high heat. Brush the fish, skin side if it still has skin, with half the vegetable oil and season with a little sea salt. Place oiled side down onto the hot pan and let the fish brown well on one side (this will crisp the skin if you have it). Add the butter to the pan, remove from the heat and swirl the butter around. If your pan is heat proof, place directly into the oven. Otherwise, transfer the fish and all the buttery juices to a baking dish and whack that in the oven. Depending on the thickness of the fish, it will take between 6 and 10 minutes to cook. Test if the fish is done by sinking a knife into the thickest part of the fish. It should ease in without any resistance. If the knife is at all hard to push into the fish, cook it for another few minutes. If your fish is nice and fresh, don’t be afraid at all to serve it a tiny bit underdone – it will be superior moist cooked that way.
Place another frypan (again, non-stick, if possible) on medium heat
and add the remaining vegetable oil. Add the bacon and cook until it is nice and crisp. Remove from the heat and drain. Cut the bacon into 1 cm slices and add to the parsley / garlic mixture. Plunge the leek into the boiling water and simmer for 45 seconds – no more. Drain well, then add to the bacon. Add 3/4 of the apple balsamic dressing to the leek mixture and toss well to combine.
Divide the cooked fish, skin side up (if applicable) between 4 plates. Place a good pile of the leek mixture directly on top of each serve of fish – piling it high. Drizzle over and around the remaining dressing, and then finish with a lemon wedge and a generous grind of black pepper. Serve immediately.
1 On the good chance that you can’t find any apple balsamic vinegar for sale, here is an easy and fairly good approximation that you can make at home. Place 250 ml (1 cup) of apple juice in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer until only 50 ml remains. The juice will have darkened and start to look sticky and syrupy. Pour into a bowl, and when cool add 2 Tbs of balsamic vinegar or red wine vinegar. You are now ready to measure out the amount you need for the recipe.