In June 2022, renowned chef and restaurateur Rick Stein had a fish dinner that set him on a path to simplifying his life and work.
It was the last meal he had before undergoing open heart surgery and his latest cookbook Simple Suppers is an ode to the ordinary, cooking well with few ingredients and easy preparation.
The simple meal he had the night before his operation was a revelation, he told Jesse Mulligan.
“I suppose I was a little bit tense going into hospital the night before the operation, but was much cheered up by this really lovely dish of just a simple haddock fried with a bit of olive oil and cracked black pepper and a little bit of soy sauce, a little bit of lemon juice and some chives.
“And I just thought this is great. People are really rude about hospital food, but this is the way forward with hospital food - a simple dish of fish.”
His post-op meal was less successful, he says.
“This girl came up and said 'what would you like for lunch tomorrow?' And it was Sunday lunch. So, I looked and I thought well, I'll have the roast lamb and mint sauce. And of course, it was terrible, absolutely terrible.
“I don’t know if it was the drugs I was on, but the lamb was so dry. And the mint sauce was, gummy, it was so thick with some sort of thickener.
“Maybe in my slightly delirious state, I started thinking, I really like simple, I really liked that fish dish, what a shame."
That started him thinking about doing a book of simple recipes.
“Basically, the premise for the book, I worked out right from the beginning was it should be one recipe on a page, no going over the page. No referring in the recipe to other recipes. And keep to a minimum of five ingredients, but often it was like 10 or 12.”
In the spirit of simplicity, Stein is no snob about supermarket mayo, he says.
“Use bought-in things from supermarkets. If I'm using mayonnaise, I'll say buy in the mayonnaise, if I'm doing an Indian garam masala, buy in the garam masala, because that's what I've come to realise over the years is that actually what you can buy in supermarkets these days is often as good as you can make yourself.
“And I've said somewhere in the book, if it's as good as, use it, because time is really precious to us all I think.”
Simple Suppers was conceived with the “sort of person that reads cookery books in bed” in mind, Stein says.
“Although there's 110 recipes in there, each recipe has got a little intro as to why it's so special. But also I've got what I rather grandly call essays in the book, which is a series of things that interests me to do with food.
“There's a whole piece on air fryers and other sort of time-saving and energy-saving devices. There’s a whole piece why the big fear of salt, there's a whole piece on the fear of fish.
“So, it's not just a cookery book, it's also a book of reminiscences.”
Many people fear cooking fish, and Stein understands the reasons for the trepidation.
“That's why I wrote the piece really and just listed the things that people don't like about fish. Obviously the first one is bones, but also when you're cooking fish the smell of it.
“I quoted a famous author from the 1970s called Jane Grigson… she quotes somebody who was talking to her, or maybe she picked it up from a newspaper I can't remember, that 'fish isn't proper food for men, you need to have meat, that's what proper cooking is all about'.
"And this is extraordinary really, because not only is fish really good protein for you, it's actually better for you protein-wise and nutrition-wise than the meat.”
Rick Stein’s smoked haddock rarebit with spinach
I may be guilty of having too many smoked fish recipes. I came up with this one when thinking of the sort of dishes that me and my old chums delight in at my pub, the Cornish Arms, in Padstow.
It’s simply poached smoked haddock (you could also cook the fish in a microwave), with a rarebit sauce like you would put on bread: cheese, beer, mustard and egg — all served on top of spinach. Lovely. Go for undyed smoked haddock. The dyed stuff always tastes, well, dyed.
2 x 120g pieces undyed smoked haddock fillet
300g spinach, washed
For the rarebit topping
80g strong cheddar cheese, grated
1 tbsp beer
1 tbsp beaten egg
1 tsp Dijon mustard
From the store cupboard
Knob of butter
Salt and black pepper
1. Put the smoked haddock fillets, skin-side down, in a pan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, allow the water to bubble momentarily, then turn off the heat and leave the fish in the water to cook for 3-4 minutes. Remove the fish with a slotted spoon and place on a baking sheet.
2. In a small bowl, mix the rarebit ingredients together, add a few grinds of black pepper and smooth the mixture over the haddock fillets. Grill them under a medium-high setting for a few minutes until they’re golden and bubbling.
3. While the haddock is under the grill, wilt the spinach in a pan, stir in the butter and season with salt and pepper.
4. Divide the spinach between two plates and top with a piece of haddock.
While Rick uses smoked haddock in this recipe, smoked kahawai is a good alternative in Aotearoa.