recipe

Fillet of fish in a black saucepan with slices of onion scattered around it
Raw fillet of fish laid out on a black table and beside a small pile of salt
Fillet of fish on a white plate, dressed in diced cucumber and a yellow sauce.
"Strain the liquid into a mixing bowl and gently begin drizzling the olive oil in while whisking to emulsify the liquid while it is still warm". Fillet of fish in a black saucepan with slices of onion scattered around it
Raw fillet of fish laid out on a black table and beside a small pile of salt
Fillet of fish on a white plate, dressed in diced cucumber and a yellow sauce.
Credit: Photographed remotely by Earl Carter

Salted fish
al pil-pil

David Moyle is a chef. He is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.

Credit: Photographed remotely by Earl Carter

This method for preserving fish is found all over the world but it is most prolific in the European countries of Spain and Portugal, where it is known as bacalao/bacalhau. This as much refers to the fish species used (cod) as it does to the preparation. In Australia we don’t have the same species of cod in our waters but we do have many fish with similar properties. I found in southern waters the fish charmingly referred to as “mother-in-law fish”, or southern rock cod, to be fantastic with this method.

The European cod are salted and air-dried in a much more involved process than is undertaken with this recipe, so bear that in mind if you do buy the variety found in stores. If using store-bought fish, this would need to be soaked for a week or more. Another common technique to remove the excess salt is to soak the fish in milk, but I don’t find it makes that much difference. I like to only salt the fish for a couple of days; this gives the benefit of some preservation (seven to 10 days) along with the textural and seasoning benefits from the salt. Other varieties of fish this technique can work with are flathead or pearl perch.

Salt is a commodity that has progressed our ability to manipulate food in more ways than anything else, other than, perhaps, fire. It is one of our best methods of preservation without refrigeration, and one that also led to elevated levels of deliciousness. Cured hams, all charcuterie and most fermented foods wouldn’t exist without salt, which provides standalone items along with ingredients to help season dishes, such as dashi or fish sauce.

Pil-pil refers mostly to the sauce served along with the cod, which is effectively garlic and olive oil with some chilli. This version relies heavily on the proteins from the fish to help emulsify the dressing, in much the same way as adding egg yolk to a vinaigrette helps it emulsify into mayonnaise. This is why it is important to retain as much of the skin and bone in this process as you can. I add quite a bit of lemon juice and cucumber to tone down the saltiness, so it can be more standalone as a dish. This fish then also flakes well through a salad or can be mixed with potato or bechamel  sauce and coated to become a fritter.

Once the sauce is made it can’t be reheated, but it can then be treated like mayonnaise. Again, it works really well in similar applications with eggs or even dressing leaves for a salad.

Ingredients

Serves 4 as a meal with accompaniments 

Time: 60 minutes preparation over 3 days + 30 minutes cooking

  • 3kg fish on the bone (preferably southern rock cod, flathead or pearl perch)
  • 400g salt, flake or rock
  • 2 Lebanese cucumbers
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 lemon
  • 200ml chicken stock
  • 100ml olive oil
  • cracked pepper or mild chilli flakes
  • 1 bunch chives, cut finely
Method
  1. Get your fishmonger to butterfly a fish, keeping as much bone as possible. Or you can choose to remove one fillet from your whole fish and put this aside for another time. For this dish, the fish needs to be protected by both skin and bone for preservation.
  2. In a sterile plastic tray sprinkle a layer of salt, then lay the fish skin-side down in the tray. Cover the fish with the remainder of the salt and refrigerate for two days. The salt will likely liquefy, which is the goal. This fish can now be frozen or left for several days before serving. Take 600 grams of the fish by cutting straight through the bone and reserve the rest in the freezer for another day.
  3. Soak the fish in fresh water for 24 hours in the refrigerator before removing and rinsing it off in more cold, fresh water.
  4. Peel and dice the cucumbers and blanch them in boiling water for 10 seconds, then refresh in iced water. Strain and reserve.
  5. Slice the garlic and peel the lemon using a vegetable peeler. Place the garlic with the lemon skin and the fish in a pan, together with the chicken stock. Bring up to about 70 degrees and cook for about 15 minutes very gently, covered with a well-fitting lid.
  6. Remove the fish onto a tray then boil the liquid to reduce it by half. Strain the liquid into a mixing bowl and gently begin drizzling the olive oil in while whisking to emulsify the liquid while it is still warm. Add the juice from the lemon halfway through and then continue with the rest of the olive oil. Finish this warm sauce with cracked pepper or the chilli flakes, then the blanched cucumber and the chives.
  7. Using a spatula, lift the cooked fish off the bone and onto a serving plate, and spoon the sauce over generously.
  8. Serve with potatoes or rice and salad greens.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 25, 2023 as "Worth one’s salt".

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