So I took the opportunity to visit the Belfast St George’s market last Friday morning on the hunt for some beautifully fresh ‘just off the boat’ seafood, I don’t know why I just had a real hunger for fresh fish, it felt like my body was crying our for it. The St George’s market is a true historical Belfast gem and dates back to the 1890s. I got in early, headed straight for the fish stalls and had a good look at each one to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. One of the things I’ve learnt over the years from going to food markets is to try to hold back from buying the first thing you see, because a lot of the time there could be something even better at the next stall – my advice is to resist the immediate urge and only buy when you’re completely satisfied that you’re getting the best on offer.
There was lots of activity around the fish stalls with a real mix of Belfast natives rubbing shoulders with Asians and Africans, all having a good look to see what could be on the dinner table that night. There was even people buying up polystyrene trays of Herring roll mops and native oysters, eating them right there on the spot. It might not quite be the tapas bars in the Boqueria in Barcelona, but we can live in hope!
Each fish stall was heaving with the freshest seafood from the North East Atlantic, a beautiful variety of fish including Mackerel, Turbot, Sea Bream, Haddock, Hake, live Lobsters and Crab, Squid – there was so much. It was hard to narrow the options down, but I finally settled on some fat juicy Scallops and a huge thick fillet of Hake. Hake is my new favourite fish, it’s so meaty and has a stronger flavour than Cod or Haddock, the Spanish adore Hake or ‘Merluza’ as they call it, and they are a nation that knows a thing or two about good seafood.
With seafood this fresh I wasn’t planning to do too much with it, the best seafood in my view should be eaten as simply as possible – my mind was working over a garlic herb butter laced with parsley and lemon zest for the Hake and I went down a tapas style route for the Scallops, pan-fried with some crispy fried chorizo. In a final flurry of buying I spotted some Samphire, which is a bright green sea vegetable, that grows in salt marshes on the shore line. It has a natural affinity with seafood, it’s quite salty and has a subtle flavour something akin to asparagus or tender pea shoots, but tastes of the sea. This was an added bonus to the bounty I already had.
Happy with my purchases I had time to munch down a filled bacon and egg soda and a steaming cup of strong Belfast tea. As I tucked into my breakfast soda soaking up the market atmosphere, I shared a plastic picnic table with a few die hards from the purple rinse brigade tucking into their Ulster Frys, hold the beans brother! These spring chickens were suitably kitted out with plastic rain hoods and tartan shopping trolleys – I was definitely back in Belfast. Friday morning couldn’t get much better.
Going to a market really gets the creative culinary juices flowing as you never know what you are going to get, so that’s why there’s no recipe for this meal, this was very much about cooking on the fly, cooking simply and quickly with the least amount of fuss and allowing the freshness of the seafood to shine through.
For the scallops all I did was finely dice some chorizo, fry it in a hot pan in some olive oil, allowing the pieces to become crisp and golden, rendering that beautiful saffron tinted oil from the sausage. Then I put the chorizo pieces and the oil into a dish, keeping it to the side. In the same pan I melted a knob of butter, when the butter started to foam I gently placed the scallops in, cooking quickly for no more than two minutes max on each. I placed them onto a serving dish, poured over the butter from the pan, also pouring over the chorizo oil and crispy chorizo chunks. Seasoned with salt and black pepper, served in the middle of the table with two sets of knives and forks to share the plate. The scallops were sweet and juicy, and their succulent flesh went so well with the salty, smokey notes of the chorizo sausage – this is a great way to serve scallops, so easy and so full of flavour.
Again I wanted to keep the Hake simple, so I made the garlic herb butter first. I chopped up a handful of flat leaf parsley and chives, and mashed it together with a thick slice of soft butter, I then added one finely chopped clove of garlic and the zest of one lemon. I patted dry the Hake with kitchen paper then slashed the skin with a sharp knife, rubbed both sides of the fish with olive oil and seasoned well with salt and pepper. In a hot frying pan I melted a knob of butter and when the butter started to foam I placed the Hake in skin side down and left it there for two minutes. I carefully turned the fish, for another minute then I put the frying pan into a hot oven for another five minutes. About a minute before the fish is ready to come out of the oven, turn the fish again so the skin side is facing upwards, add a dollop of the garlic herb butter onto the skin of the fish and place back into the oven so the butter melts all over the fish.
To serve I simmered the Samphire for about three minutes, drained and placed around the edge of the plate and served the fish in the middle of the plate with a slice of lemon for garnish. I did a few sautéed new potatoes on the side. The Hake was so fresh, the thick chunky flakes of the fish were just falling apart, with a beautiful flavour, heightened by a few hits of fresh herbs, lemon zest, garlic and a salty kick from the Samphire. To drink we had a chilled bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc called ‘Wairu Cove’, which I bought from the supermarket for £5.49, and it was delicious with the fish. Friday fish night was a winner!