In the water, a red mullet is not red. It is a sort of pale pink with strong orange stripes running down its length. Once out of the water, those stripes slowly fade and the skin takes on its familiar pinkish red. When it is no longer fresh it loses colour.
In the days when red mullet were plentiful and moderately priced, I never tired of cooking them, and served them in many different ways. I deep-fried thin slices of aubergine and sandwiched red mullet fillets inside them with a little tomato sauce. I cooked the very small ones whole and served them on little toasts spread with anchovy butter. Most popular of all was this dish of red mullet fillets with citrus fruits, olive oil and saffron mashed potatoes, “safmash” for short – which was actually Simon Hopkinson’s creation.
Indeed like so much alleged inventiveness, the dish was a combination of wilful and unconscious plagiarism. I read of a sauce, for sea bass as I recall, that Roger Vergé published in which orange, lemon and grapefruit segments were warmed in olive oil and served on the grilled fish. At the time, it was radical and I copied the idea. It seemed natural to pair this Mediterranean offering with mashed potatoes infused with saffron, and so the dish was born.
I ate a perfect lunch in a fish restaurant in Istanbul a couple of months ago. The pièce de résistance was a whole red mullet simply grilled, served with a few leaves of incredibly vibrant rocket, a few slices of onion and half a lemon. I don’t know if I have ever enjoyed a fish so much. A few weeks later, I revived the old citrus and “safmash” dish and was reminded just how good it was. The fish had its long orange stripes still prominent and the few segments of orange, lemon and lime detracted from it in no way.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
Red mullet with citrus fruits and olive oil
Were I the only one eating the fish, I would cook it whole, on the bone. Should you be with like-minded people, I would recommend the same. Recipe serves four.
4 red mullet weighing 300g-350g each
A few sprigs thyme
100ml olive oil
Large pinch saffron
• Ask the fishmonger to scale, fillet and pinbone the fish. If doing it yourself, after scaling the fish, cut down on either side of the back close to the bone until you reach the spine in the middle before removing each fillet. The pinbones are best removed with a pair of long-nosed pliers: it is a fiddly job but essential if you don’t want to pick the bones out of every mouthful. Season the skin with a little sea salt and reserve.
• Cut the tops and bottoms off the fruit to reveal the flesh. Place them on a board and remove the skin and pith with a sharp knife, as though taking the staves off a barrel. Cut the segments of fruit out from between the supporting walls and collect these segments in a bowl. Add a teaspoon of thyme leaves and half the olive oil.
• Combine milk and saffron in a small saucepan, bring to the boil and then leave to infuse. Peel the potatoes and cut them into chunks. Cover with well salted cold water, bring to the boil and simmer until completely cooked. Drain and then pass the potatoes through the fine mesh of a mouli-legumes or potato ricer. Return the mashed potato to the pan and stir in the saffron milk. Add more milk if necessary to achieve a creamy texture, check the seasoning and then, just before serving, beat in three tablespoons of olive oil.
• Add a tablespoon of olive oil to a non-stick frying-pan. Once hot, place the mullet fillets skin-side down and fry them on a lively heat for three or four minutes so that the skin is really crisp. Lightly season the flesh side of the fish and turn over and seal before lifting out of the pan. Present skin-side up and spoon the fruit segments and oil over the fish with the mash served alongside.