Red mullet is a fish that brings to mind Mediterranean summers – cooked over smouldering fennel branches in the sun, with no more adornment than a splash of local olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. And it’s true: travel to Greece or southern France, if such things are ever allowed, and you’ll find it on many a seaside summer menu. But it isn’t necessarily just a fair-weather fish. Although it is widely caught in southwest England during the warmer months, it is often landed in winter, too. In fact, if you want to be sustainable, it should really be left alone during its May-July breeding season.
It’s a robustly flavoured fish, tasting strongly of the sea – more so than other Mediterranean characters such as bream and bass – though you could replace it with fillets of either. This recipe is a wintry rendition, with leeks, which always seem like a solidly northern European vegetable, though the saffron and lemon make a nod to the mullet’s more southerly stomping grounds.
4 medium leeks, sliced
Salt and pepper
Zest and juice of 1 large lemon
Two good pinches saffron threads, soaked in 1 tbsp boiling water for 10 minutes
7 5ml dry white wine
125ml double cream
8 red mullet fillets, as fresh as possible, about 50-60g each (make sure they have been scaled and pinboned)
Olive oil (not extra virgin)
In a large saucepan, melt the butter over a medium heat. Add the leeks, half the lemon zest, ½ tsp salt and about 20 grinds of pepper. Cook gently for 10-15 minutes, or until the leeks are soft and sweet. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary, then put to one side and keep warm.
Meanwhile, put the cream in a small saucepan with the remaining lemon zest, white wine, saffron and its soaking liquid. Bring to a boil and simmer for 2-3 minutes to thicken a little. Season with a pinch of salt and put to one side.
Season the fillets on both sides with salt and pepper, then make three shallow slashes in the skin side of each one. Heat a large non-stick frying pan, then add the oil. Lay in the fish, skin down, pressing gently on each fillet to stop it curling. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until the skin is lightly golden, then carefully turn over and leave, off the heat, for 1-2 minutes more, until just cooked through. Squeeze over the juice of ½ lemon. Add the remaining lemon juice to the cream sauce.
Divide the leeks between four plates, making a loose mound in the middle, then arrange two mullet fillets on top of each mound. Spoon some of the sauce around and over the fillets and finish with an extra grind of black pepper.
Lucas Hollweg is an award-winning food writer, cookbook author and cook. A former Sunday Times journalist and cookery columnist, he writes for a wide range of food publications. His most recent book is Good Things to Eat.