An under-utilised and highly economical fish with sweet, firm flesh
The sustainability of fish is a slippery subject, not least because what’s considered ‘sustainable’ changes season to season—even week to week when it comes to what’s top (or bottom) of the fish-to-eat list. The best thing to do is ask those in the know, such as Borough Market’s fishmongers. Another useful steer is to choose a fish you wouldn’t normally cook with.
Gurnard is a prime example: a white round fish that’s abundant in the British Isles, yet underutilised compared to the likes of cod or sea bass, it’s not only an environmentally sound option but “cheap—really cheap,” says Beck at Furness Fish Markets. Sweet, firm and flavoursome, “older people and people in the Mediterranean really love it, but it’s not very trendy here. It’s ripe for a chef to come along and tell everyone how super economical and super nice it is. Then it will take off”—you heard it here first.
Caught via day boats down in Cornwall, while gurnard is available year-round, it’s best avoided during spawning season, from April to August—making now a good time to make the most of it. “People like it because it has a hard head which is good for adding flavour to soups and stews, though you can use it for lots of different things,” Beck continues, “it’s really versatile.” Gurnard is most often sold whole rather than as fillets and can be enjoyed cooked that way. “It’s really easy to cook. Cut off the fins, trim the tail and take out the gills—you must do that because the gills will make it taste bitter, and the gill covers are sharp like the fins—cut through the stomach and clean out the guts, then the best way is just to roast it.” Season the fish inside and out—“I usually do it with salt, pepper and lemon, but you can add dill and parsley or other herbs”—and place it in a hot oven for 30 to 40 minutes, depending on the size of the fish. “The nice thing about it is you can rest it in the roasting tray because it sits flat on its belly.” Once cooked, the flesh slides easily off the bones, “even if you don’t have good knife skills”. The bones can then be used to make a delicious stock.
Briny and sweet
Alternatively, do it the Mediterranean way and, once trimmed, cook it as Brindisa head chef Leonardo Rivera Ruiz does, alongside monkfish, shellfish and potatoes in a hearty fisherman’s stew with toasted garlic: a traditional Catalonian ‘suquet’. Gurnard is also the star of the show in Ed Smith’s Market fish soup, the full recipe for which can be found in The Borough Market Cookbook. “Not being the most glamorous (or indeed pretty) of fish, gurnard is rarely given an opportunity to shine. Yet it is often among the treasure chests of seafood at the Market’s fishmongers,” he says. “Therefore, when writing the book, I wanted to include a recipe that puts gurnard front and centre.” In reality, he continues, it’s a gurnard soup “to which you could add other fish like red mullet, hake or snapper to, but the core flavour comes from our pre-historic looking friend with a wide mouth and bulging eyes. That taste is briny, sweet and fishy (of course), but not too fishy.”
The soup itself is classic—a base of fennel, carrots and celery, star anise and a splash of Pernod—with a stock made from fish bones, plus red peppers, tomatoes and anchovies, “for a secondary fish kick alongside most, but not all, of the gurnard,” he explains. Once blended, saffron and a little lemon juice is added “to lift it, as well as a good few pieces of gurnard, poached in the last moments to add texture and taste to the final soup. That final addition of fish needs only a few minutes—over-cooked, gurnard seems uniquely able to be both sticky and dry—but is essential to keeping the soup interesting after the third spoonful,” he advises. “It's definitely worth trying, particularly while the weather is fresh.”