Gurnard peperonata stew

I recently stumbled across a piece about Gurnard that I wrote back in 2016 for Borough Market. Thought it worth adding to the repository here. There’s a recipe too ...

Gurnard is not the absolute weirdest looking creature of the sea, but neither is it the prettiest. Research this fish and you’ll see it described as “pre-historic looking”, “distinctive” and downright “ugly”; and if you simply take a look at them at the large headed, wide mouthed, big-eyed, jagged finned, pink skinned examples at one of the Market’s fishmongers, it’s hard to disagree. Which doesn’t exactly make gurnard attractive to buy, cook and eat.

In his seminal book English Seafood Cookery, however, Rick Stein pointed out that gurnard “is an undervalued fish, mostly going as bait for lobster pots in the South West” and that it is excellent in stews like a Bouillabaisse, and also when filleted and cooked simply. “Any recipe for filleted sole, turbot, brill or John Dory would suit gurnard”. Did we actually heed Rick, though, or were we just reading and watching because his dog Chalky was cute?

I worry it was the latter, because it’s now nearly 30 years since that book was published, and I still don’t think gurnard is cooked enough. Indeed back in October 2015, Stephen Harris, the chef proprietor at the much acclaimed Sportsman restaurant near Whitstable, wrote about gurnard for the Saturday Telegraph, not just bemoaning the fish’s bad reputation in general, but also noting his own reluctance to cook it (“I was never quite convinced”). The fact no one bought the gurnard dishes they cooked was nearly the final nail in the coffin for Harris (“even my brother couldn’t sell it”), and the scenario meant it was even more wasteful to buy gurnard for the restaurant, than it would be to let the fisherman send it to the lobster pots.

There is, thankfully, a happy ending. Harris found that by cooking gurnard on the bone it didn’t dry as it can do when filleted. He now salt-bakes gurnard, serving it broken into large flakes on top of a bouillabaisse style sauce, and customers can’t get enough. Having eaten that dish at the Sportsman, I can vouch for its quality and, more pertinently, his assessment that the fish tastes “briny and sweet” and that “and the texture was enhanced by a slight stickiness that came from the gelatin in the fish bones”. Accordingly, I highly recommend gurnard as an easy to cook and great tasting, if odd looking, fish. Baking it in a salt crust (as Harris does) is absolutely an option. But simply poaching it gently in the last few moments of a stew is a pretty good and hassle free alternative.

You will often see gurnard paired with peperonata, that sticky, intense, long reduced tangle of bell peppers, onions and tomato. A few weeks ago I cooked masses of peppers and onions with cumin and oregano, adding extra water and saffron once it was cooked so that it began to resemble a stew. I then added handfuls of sweet cherry tomatoes, and let four whole gurnard nestle in amongst it all as if they were having a bath. Over ten minutes or so of gentle simmering, the fish swapped much of their flavour into the cooking liquor and, just as it became clear they had poached perfectly, I lifted them out, turning the heat up for the broth to reduce a little whilst carefully removing the fish fillets from their frames. As Harris said, the resulting flesh was firm, sticky and sweet tasting, and worked brilliantly laid over the peperonata stew with a good hunk of warm bread, a glug of peppery olive oil and a scattering of parsley. Not such an ugly critter after all.

Gurnard peperonata stew

Serves 4

  • 1 medium brown onion, finely diced (100g)
  • 4 tablespoons light olive oil
  • 2 large red bell peppers (500-600g)
  • 2 large yellow bell peppers (500-600g)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, lightly crushed
  • 1 heaped teaspoon dried coriander
  • 600g cherry tomatoes (yellow and red if possible)
  • 4 gurnard, scaled and gutted
  • 40ml white vermouth
  • 10 strand saffron
  • Sea salt, ground white pepper

To serve

  • Fresh lemon
  • Handful of flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Good bread

Cut the peppers in half and remove their core and woody green ends. Slice into 5-8mm thick long strips. Put to one side and prepare the onions and garlic.

Find a heavy bottomed saucepan that will just squeeze the gurnard in on one layer. Put this (without the fish) on a medium-hot hob. Add 2 tablespoons of light olive oil, the onions and a pinch of salt. Soften for 3-4 minutes, before adding the cumin, oregano, and minced garlic. Cook for 1 minute more, then add the remaining 2 tablespoons of light olive oil and the strips of pepper. Stir so the pepper is well glossed, cooking for 5 minutes more before turning the heat down to low, and placing a lid on the saucepan. Cook the peppers and onion gently for 40 minutes until soft and intensely sweet. Stir occasionally and leave the lid ajar for the last 10 minutes.

Once the peperonata is ready, turn the heat up and after 30 seconds pour in the vermouth. Let this cook away for 10 seconds or so, then add two thirds of the cherry tomatoes and enough water to cover the vegetables by 3-4cm. Bring to a gentle simmer, then place the gurnard among the tomatoes and broth. Cook with the lid on for 8-12 minutes, until the flesh of the fish starts to pull away from the bone (it won’t take long, so try not to overcook it).

Carefully remove the fish from the pot. Turn the heat up so that it begins to boil and reduce, add add the remaining tomatoes and cook vigorously for 5 minutes more. Meanwhile, use your hands to push the fillets of fish off the bone, taking care when removing the sharp fins.

Season the broth with salt, white pepper and a squeeze of lemon. Serve by ladling the pepperonata and broth into bowls, breaking the gurnard into flakes over the top, drizzling with loads of good olive oil and parsley, and with fresh crusty bread alongside.