Oatmeal Herrings with Autumn Salsa
I'm now three weeks into Neptune's Bounty, my mission to try 52 different species of seafood over 52 weeks, exploring beyond the UK's most eaten seafood of cod, tuna, haddock, prawns and salmon. September sees Scottish Food Fortnight take place, Scotland Food and Drink's annual celebration of Scottish produce so I've chosen herring for my next variety of seafood, traditionally eaten in Scotland and a fish that was once the mainstay of coastal economies and communities. Scottish Food Fortnight is all about sharing your #ScotFoodGoals; mine is of course to eat lots of alternative species of fish!
Herring was widely caught along the East Coast of the UK and the north of Scotland; the herring boom of the nineteenth and early twentieth century saw over 30,000 boats involved in the industry from the east of Scotland alone, with thousands more across the wider North Atlantic and the Irish Sea. Before modern storage and refrigeration methods It had to be preserved quickly due to its fatty content, hence the industry and tradition of salting, curing, pickling and smoking these fish in many ways across northern Europe. This was truly the work of fishwives past; Scottish girls would travel as far as Great Yarmouth in East Anglia to gut and pack the herrings into barrels throughout the season. Shetland Herring Girls in the First World War could "gut at the rate of 40 herring a minute" (A Davidson's North Atlantic Seafood, pg 28, Penguin 1980). The fishwives of Arbroath sold dry-salted herrings on the doorsteps of Dundee (S. Lawrence, A Cook's Tour of Scotland, pg.40, Headline 2006). For a good history of this fine fish try Herring Tales by Donald S. Murray (Bloomsbury, 2016).
Thankfully the modern fishwife doesn't have to be up to her elbows in fish guts to enjoy these beauties. Herrings are especially good May-September; the early ones straight into Peterhead at the end of spring are not to be missed. If you get them prepared and filleted by a fishmonger they are easy to cook and enjoy. I wonder if smaller, more bonier oily fish high in omega-3 like herrings have fallen out of favour with the public because of the rise in farmed salmon as a widely available, alternative oil-rich fish, without the worry of bones or preparation. In reality herrings have more in common taste and texture wise with punchy anchovies or super fresh mackerel. I've been surprised by the amount of mediterranean-style recipes and flavours that use them to great effect. These colourful, bountiful-style dishes are almost the antithesis of how we sometimes perceive herring, all restraint and presbyterian; think Marin in The Miniaturist sitting peevishly at the dining table with her meagre supper or, on a slightly more appetising note, the cool, clean flavours of the fish pickled in a Scandinavian style, displayed sparsely on a wooden board.
I've really been surprised by their versatility, aside from the pickling and preserving they take so well to pasta dishes, grilled on a bbq or as a snack in their immature, fry, form as whitebait, deep fried in spiced flour with lots of homemade lemon mayonnaise. A traditional way of eating them in Scotland is to coat them in oatmeal (pinhead or medium) and fry them in butter. This is true fast food; I have followed Sue Lawrence's advice from A Cook's Tour of Scotland: coat in water (if not freshly gutted) then oatmeal, then fry for three minutes each side, flesh side first (just be brave and have the pan hot enough). I find this gets excellent results. The dish below can be made for two people in the time it takes to boil the potatoes. You don't need any fancy, cheffy equipment, just a knife, a board, a bowl and a basic frying pan. The autumn salsa contains sweet plums but don't be put off by the combination of fruit, it brings a traditional dish right up to date and is super seasonal. Quick, cheap, tasty, versatile and healthy, I really can't recommend herring enough.
Oatmeal Herrings with Autumn Salsa
- 2-4 herrings, cleaned and filleted (depending on hunger and size, these were £10.90/kg)
- Scottish oatmeal (medium or pinhead, I used medium)
- Large knob of butter plus extra for the potatoes
- Handful of small potatoes
- Large bunch watercress
For the salsa:
- 2/3 small ripe plums, skin on and finely chopped
- 1 dessert apple, skin on and finely chopped
- Half a red onion, finely chopped
- Half a tsp yellow mustard seed
- Juice of half a lemon
- 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil or rapeseed oil
- Small handful flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
- Salt and pepper
- Chopping board
- Sharp cook's knife or small fruit knife
- Small saucepan and lid
- Small mixing bowl
- Measuring spoons
- Mixing spoon
- Shallow dish (like a pie tin or a tupperware box) big enough to fit the fish
- Frying pan
- Fish slice
- Butter knife
- Scrub the potatoes and get them on to boil, about 10 minutes. Wash the watercress if need be and dry.
- Make the salsa. Put the plum, apple, onion and mustard seeds in a small bowl. Mix gently with the lemon juice and oil. Add the chopped parsley and some seasoning to taste (just a little salt required due to the fish). If you like you can add a pinch of chopped fresh chilli, chilli flakes or a little grated ginger.
- Deal with the fish. Pour enough oatmeal into the shallow dish to cover the herrings well (about 4/5 tbsp). If the herrings were bought the day before hold them under running water and rinse off the excess (this makes the oatmeal stick better). Press them into the oatmeal, generously covering on both sides.
- Heat the large knob of butter in the frying pan till medium hot. Add the fish flesh side down and cook for three minutes. Turn them over and cook for another three minutes till cooked.
- Drain the potatoes and toss while still hot with butter. Dish them up with the watercress, then top with the fish and serve with the autumn salsa.
What else can you do with herrings?
- Serve decent ready made pickled herrings (rollmops) as part of a smorgasbord with thin slices of dark rye bread, cucumber pickle, mild cheese and cold meats. Dinner on the table in minutes! Swerve the meatballs at Ikea and enjoy this before you tackle your tricksy furniture.
- Fry them with olive oil, onions, tomatoes, capers and loads of mediteerrean flavours for a quick pasta sauce (I cut the herring fillets up with scissors to save time!). See the Jamie O recipe below for a version.
Even more ideas...