Monday, January 10, 2022

Smoked Herring and Buckwheat Blinis

I was busy baking cookies and more cookies and celebrating the holidays. But, now I want to tell you all about a new cookbook. I received a review copy of Take One Fish: The New School of Scale-to-Tail Cooking and Eating by Josh Niland, and I was excited to read about his approach to using more of each fish and using less popular types of fish. I had recently watched the documentary Seaspiracy. That film goes into detail showing that certification programs aren’t always what we expect them to be. A sustainably-caught label on fish at the grocery store may not mean much. I wasn’t feeling so great about meals from our oceans. When I opened this book, right off the bat in the introduction it’s explained that NIland’s approach to fish increases its usable yield considerably. His goal is for every fish caught to “generate the yield of two” by using more than just fillets. If chefs followed his lead, fewer fish could feed more people. He understands that not everyone catches and butchers her own fish, and he offers suggestions for how to make the most of store-bought fish pieces and how to ask for cuts that aren’t usually in the seafood case. The book’s sections are ordered by size of fish, each chapter is devoted to a type of fish, and there are stunning photos throughout. At the start of the chapters, there are suggestions for other types of fish that would work for the recipes. The John Dory chapter is a great example of the overall intent. Niland is able to use 90% of the whole weight of John Dory. There’s Salt and Pepper John Dory Tripe that looks like crispy calamari; a tagine made with tail shanks; John Dory Chops with Anchovy and Reaper Butter and Jerk Cauliflower that I have marked for the cauliflower alone; and John Dory Liver Terrine with Chopped Sauternes Jelly. One of the prettiest dishes is the Raw Flounder, Fragrant Leaves, Herbs and Citrus Dressing that’s shown served as a taco of sorts in thinly-sliced daikon. And, there are actual tacos made with Swordfish al Pastor. Fish fat is even featured since it does account for a substantial amount of total weight. The head note for the Kingfish Fat Caramel Macarons explains that the “result was delicious, with only a very mild hint of fish flavor.” For another foray into sweets, there’s a Custard Tart with Sardine Garum Caramel that has me very curious. I was pulled in by the X-Small section with the Pissaldiere and Pichade both made with fresh sardines rather than salted anchovies. Then, I set about making the Smoked Herring and Buckwheat Blinis. 

I had definitely used buckwheat flour before and may have even used it in some type of pancakes, but I had never made proper blinis. The batter was made in a few steps involving warmed milk, yeast, a mix of flours, egg yolks, and whisked egg whites that were gently folded into the mix. I cooked the blinis on a griddle with melted butter brushed over the surface. The smoked herring was steeped in milk with a bay leaf before being mashed with butter, lemon juice, and olive oil. I should mention, the recipe as shown below calls for a mix of smoked herring and cooked white fish. I used all smoked herring. Mashed potato and more butter were added before creme fraiche and chives were folded in to form the brandade. If you have chiled the brandade before serving, you should let it sit at room temperature for a bit to soften to a scoopable state. Lots of garnishes were prepped including cornichons, capers, radishes, and arugula. 

I love a serve-yourself hors d’oeuvre with lots of options for toppings. The smoked herring brandade was spooned onto a blini, and sliced cornichon, capers, radish slices, and baby arugula leaves were balanced on top. The pickled and peppery toppings balanced the rich brandade, and the buckwheat blinis were perfect delivery vehicles for everything. I’m still thinking twice before trusting every certification label, and I'm eating a bit less seafood that I previously did. But, I’m delighted to use more tiny fish like herring and to make use of more of each fish whenever I can. 

Smoked Herring and Buckwheat Blinis 
Recipes excerpted with permission from Take One Fish: The New School of Scale-to-Tail Cooking and Eating by Josh Niland published by Hardie Grant Books, August 2021. 

This tastes as joyful as it looks, with the condiments lifting the smoked herring brandade into truly celebratory territory. Blinis are not hard to make but they often fall down for a few basic reasons: a stodgy mix that hasn’t been lightened with egg white or leavened with yeast, too much ghee in the frying pan (creating a greasy crust around the edges) or sitting around for too long after being cooked. The other challenge is getting the size and colouring consistent, but here, practice makes perfect. As long as you keep all of the above in mind, you’ll be fine. 

4 French shallots, finely diced

90 g (3 oz/1⁄2 cup) cornichons, drained and finely diced

60 g (2 oz/1⁄2 cup) tiny salted capers, rinsed and drained

8 radishes, cut into thin wedges 
 30 g (1 oz/1 cup) picked watercress extra-virgin olive oil, for dressing 
sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper

seeded mustard, to serve (optional) 

Smoked herring brandade 
80 g (23/4 oz) Smoked Herring Fillet 

210 ml (7 fl oz) full-cream (whole) milk 
1 bay leaf

70 g (2 1⁄2 oz) skinless, boneless white-fleshed fish, such as ling or snapper 
60 g (2 oz) butter, softened

juice of 1⁄2 lemon

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 
60 g (2 oz) mashed potato 
fine salt

1 1⁄2 tablespoons sour cream or crème fraîche, plus extra to serve

2 bunches chives, very finely chopped 

Buckwheat blinis 
125 g (4 1⁄2 oz) buckwheat flour

125 g (4 1⁄2 oz) plain (all-purpose) flour 
1 teaspoon fine salt

250 ml (8 1⁄2 fl oz/1 cup) full-cream (whole) milk

10 g (1⁄4 oz) dried yeast 
3 eggs, separated 
ghee, for pan-frying 

To make the brandade, check the smoked herring meat and make sure it is boneless and skinless. Put the milk and bay leaf in a small saucepan and bring to the boil, then remove from the heat and add the smoked herring. Leave for 10 minutes, then strain the herring and discard the milk (or keep it to use in mashed potatoes or a root vegetable soup). Steam the white fish in a bamboo steamer for 5 minutes or until the flesh is cooked and flakes apart easily. Put the herring and fish in a small bowl, add half the butter and mash together with a fork. Drizzle over the lemon juice and 1 tablespoon olive oil, mixing with the fork as you go, then add the mashed potato and mix well. Add the remaining butter and olive oil and mix again, then season to taste with salt. Leave the mixture to cool, then fold in the sour cream or crème fraîche. Chill in the fridge for at least 1 hour. 

For the blinis, sift both flours and the salt into a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Pour the milk into a small saucepan and warm to blood temperature over a low heat. Remove from the heat, add the yeast and let it dissolve, then stand for 5 minutes until frothy. Turn the mixer onto a low speed and combine the flours and the salt. Slowly pour in the milk and mix for 2 minutes to form a smooth batter. Cover the bowl with a tea towel (dish towel) and allow to prove in a warm place for 45 minutes or until doubled in size. Add the egg yolks to the batter and mix with a whisk for 1 minute. Add the egg whites to the very clean bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, and whisk the whites to soft peaks. Add half to the batter and gently fold through to loosen it, then fold in the remaining egg white (this second batch aerates the batter to give the blini the desired lightness). Set aside to prove for another 15 minutes. 

To cook the blinis, heat a wide-based cast-iron frying pan over a medium-low heat for a good 2 minutes before starting. It’s important that the pan is hot. Add 1 tablespoon ghee and swirl it around to ensure the base is well greased, with a very light haze coming off the ghee. Working in batches of six, add a tablespoon of batter for each blini to the pan, taking care to create neat circles. Cook for 30 seconds or until the edges are lightly golden and bubbles start to appear on the tops. Flip the blinis over and cook for another 30–60 seconds until they are firm but soft to the touch and the centres are set. Transfer to a wire rack to cool or place in a cloth napkin to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining batter. You should have enough to make 25–30 blinis. 

To serve, assemble the shallot, cornichon, capers and radish separately alongside the herring brandade. Top the brandade with the finely chopped chives, dress the watercress with a little olive oil and season. Serve with the blinis and a little seeded mustard, if you like.

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  1. Perfect timing! I've been playing with buckwheat pancakes lately, and was thinking about experiment with blinis. Will definitely be doing that -- your recipe looks terrific. Thanks!

  2. I love smoked fish! I seriously would eat the spread with a spoon, but hey are so good with buckwheat blinis too.

  3. Custard Tart with sardine flavoring? Now THAT sounds interesting! I often fillet my own fish and then make stock out of it but notice that it seems cheaper to just buy the meat of the fish. For New Years, I bought $280 worth of fresh lobster, but was too lazy to use the shells to make some stock. Sustainability, here we come!

  4. This sounds absolutely delicious. It's been a long time since I've had smoked herring.


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