What’s the catch?
Ben Barton is a chef who hates waste. A couple of years ago he ran pop-up meals at The Kitchen, Ponsonby, using food that had been dumped by supermarkets.
Now, for Heart of the City’s Restaurant Month, he’s digging into the bait freezer to serve a meal based on humble fish species that most New Zealanders use to catch the big fellas.
“Fishing got me into cooking in the first place. I loved fishing, and I wanted to learn how to cook it,” says Ben. “I was 13 or 14. I got a job washing dishes at Watermark [Devonport] and learned from there. When I travelled in Spain, I saw that what we thought of as bait was prized there. I started to think about how here a kilo of bait fish was used to catch snapper or kawahai; how sustainable is that? There’s a lot of nose-to-tail with meat, and that got me thinking about our fishing. What is the value of species? What happens to the by-catch?”
Ben now works out of the artisan grocery and restaurant Scarecrow in the city. The owners share his philosophy of knowing where our food comes from, and the stories behind it. The entire crew are about to decamp to temporary premises on the ground floor of the Metropolis building while a full kitchen is installed at the quaint Victoria Street shop.
Until now Ben and his team have been improvising, but the new restaurant will allow them to present a roster of artisan presenters and serious food conversations along with great dinners.
Ben won’t be actually dipping into the local garage’s bait freezer as, sadly, local fisheries do not handle or process the smaller fish for human consumption (something he hopes to change).
Hero of the menu is pilchards — known around the world as much-prized sardines.
Ben will start with a “burley broth” — his version of the fish discards that are normally thrown overboard — a hot stock poured over finely minced offcuts of seafood. He’ll then play with sprats, piper and jack mackerel, crisply pan fried. As he works his way up the food chain to kawahai, bonito or mullet, he’ll be asking guests to think about how eating only from the top layer fish has a huge impact on fish stocks, plus he’ll get across that the fishing method — farmed, line caught and so on — is important.
Ben, who sources from Wellington-based sustainable fishery Yellow Brick Road, says there are still many ethical dilemmas.
“Lemon fish [shark] is a by-catch, so it makes sense to eat it rather than throw it back,” he points out. “But having a market for this is a disincentive for fishers to have fishing methods with less wasteful by catch.
Pickled pilchards with onion soubise and caper gremolata
Clean and fillet pilchards — a difficult job requiring a little sharp knife. Jimmy the Fish sells sardines with the backbone removed. Just cut the tail off these and separate into two fillets.
200ml red wine vinegar
¼ cup salt
¼ cup sugar
Pickling spices, a few coriander and fennel seeds, chilli flakes, bayleaf, diced shallot, citrus zest
- Combine in a heavy based saucepan and heat gently to dissolve salt and sugar
- Pour warm pickling liquid over single layer of skin side down pilchard fillets and leave for 5-10 mins of until fish has gone slightly opaque. Drain off liquid and tightly pack fillets into a container. Cover with olive oil. Store in fridge for a week or more
100g butter, diced
1 onion, diced
Heat a splash of water in heavy base pan. Once water has almost evaporated whisk the butter into it in batches. Add the diced onion and cover with a cartouche [circle of baking paper] and cook on lowest possible heat for 1-2 hours, until the onions become translucent and sweet. Strain off butter and reserve for another use (it makes excellent bechamel).
½ cup parsley, few mint leaves, handful coriander
1 Tbsp capers
1 small garlic clove
Citrus zest and juice
Micro plane zest and garlic clove, cover with juice, add finely chopped capers and herbs, mix and bind with a little oil if necessary.
Choose something crispy such as crostini, roast potato disks, crackers, toasted rye, oat crackers or wild wheat kumara sourdough. Smear some onions on crispy things, top with a slice of pilchard and garnish with a touch of gremolata and flaky sea salt.
- Stuff butterflied mackerel with bay leaves, fold them closed and pan fry or grill
- Brush on Asian-inspired paste and grill. Try strong sweet soy, kaffir lime, ginger, garlic, even a hint of szechuan pepper, or Japanese teriyaki
- Try European-style, stuffed with flavoured breadcrumbs (lemon zest is good), cook under the broiler until the fish skin is caramelised and coloured.
- Sardines are brilliant in an Indian curry.
What’s the Catch; Friday Aug 14, 7pm. Scarecrow pop-up, L1 The Metropolis. Book at iticket.co.nz.