Unfussy and yet quietly impressive - baking a fish whole with tender young veg is also a feast for the eyes.
I cooked a couple of lemon sole the other day, laying the fillets in a shallow pan of lightly sizzling butter, then tossing in a few halved asparagus spears and a handful of dill. An unfussy dish, calm and uncomplicated, but best of all was its unmistakable taste of summer. The soft green colours, the gentle flavours told you, in whispered tones, that this was a dish born of those first carefree days of early summer.
This is, for me, the part of the season I like best. The young vegetables, the mild flavours, the soft, fragrant lushness of it all. (My love of summer diminishes progressively with each blade of sun-scorched grass.) Right now, we have young slim fennel, pencil-thin leeks and new potatoes to play with. We have young herbs, early cucumbers and asparagus. Vegetables whose meek and mild character work perfectly with fish.
This is the time of year I often bake fish whole - a brace of red mullet perhaps, a mackerel or two or a sea bass. No fussy sauces or rich accompaniments, nothing that requires much in the way of preparation, just an entire fish, baked with a few herbs and vegetables. Clean flavours, no fuss. Yes, one has to do battle with the bones, but if you choose your fish carefully they can be pulled out at the table without much hassle.
A summer fish pie is worth thinking about, too. No pastry or mashed potato crust, just a few breadcrumbs to provide some contrast with the soft piscine notes within. A fistful of herbs - dill, tarragon, parsley or chervil - will give the crumbs a lift. Lemon thyme is worth considering with oily fish. A few chives can be brought in if the fish will take it. (Better with haddock and prawns than with salmon.)
I will often serve a whole fish with just a bowl of glossy mayonnaise at its side, usually with a few herbs or a little Ricard or Pernod stirred in. A punchier version with paprika and garlic would suit clams, mussels or hake; a green mayonnaise flavoured with a basil purée works a treat with a baked sea bass or a red mullet. Just whizz a handful of basil leaves and a little olive oil in the blender then stir it into a bowl of mayonnaise.
The beauty of today's recipes is that both have the vegetables cooked with them, but I often bake a whole fish on its own too, scattered with herbs, or a few olives or capers and plenty of olive oil or butter. Broad beans, peas, courgettes, early climbing beans or summer greens are worthy accompaniments, perhaps steamed, then added to a pan with a little crème fraîche and very finely chopped shallots and a grating of lemon zest. Light, fresh flavours for a summer's day.
Red mullet with summer vegetables
You could use any whole, cleaned fish for this. A grey mullet or sea bass would work nicely. I ask my fishmonger to do all the dirty work, ridding my chosen fish of scales and guts. I ask him to leave the head on, but it's up to you. The method here will work with fillets of fish, too. Just reduce the cooking time. Bright, clean flavours here. Serves 2.
fennel 150g, young and slim
leeks 150g, young and slim
parsley a small bunch
lemon juice of 1
red mullet 2, medium sized
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Trim the fronds from the fennel and reserve. Slice the rest thinly and add to a roasting tin. Trim the leeks and, if they are small, just slice them in half and rinse. If the leeks are plumper and older, then trim the darkest of the leaves and discard. Slice finely and mix with the fennel.
Remove the leaves from a small bunch of parsley, roughly chop then add to the vegetables. Pour over a couple of generous glugs of olive oil, a grinding of salt and pepper, then toss gently until the vegetables are glossy. Squeeze over the juice of a lemon, then bake for about 15 minutes.
Remove the roasting tin from the oven, lightly season the fish then place them on top of the vegetables. Trickle with a little more olive oil, then bake for about 25 minutes until the fish can be pulled easily from its bones.
Serve the fish whole on a bed of the vegetables.
Salmon, prawn and cucumber pie
If cucumber isn't your thing, then use a courgette instead, cutting it in half, and then into cork lengths. You can also ring the changes by adding a handful of cherry tomatoes, cut in half, as well as by chopping and changing herbs at will. Serves 4.
firm white bread 85g
dill a handful
lemon the zest of 1
cucumber 1 medium
shelled prawns 250g
capers 1 tsp
double cream 150ml
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4.
Blitz the bread in a food processor together with a handful of dill and the grated zest of a lemon. Lightly peel, then seed and chop a medium- sized cucumber.
Remove the skin from the salmon and cod, cut both into large chunks and place the pieces of fish into a shallow baking dish along with the shelled prawns.
Tuck in the cucumber. Sprinkle in the capers. Season with salt and black pepper then add the butter in pieces.
Pour over the double cream and then scatter over the dill crumb topping.
Bake for 25 minutes.
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In the pink: red mullet with summer vegetables. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer