Nelson's most popular fish

YUMMY: Gurnard with paprika, thyme, garlic and lemon. One of many ways to prepare this delicious fish.
YUMMY: Gurnard with paprika, thyme, garlic and lemon. One of many ways to prepare this delicious fish.

Some people say gurnard is an ugly fish but I think its glistening redness, wing-like fins and flat nose are charming. Couple this with its delicious flesh, firm and flaky, it is one of my favourite fish.

It has had a negative reputation in the past, probably about its looks rather than its taste, although Rick Stein says it is because of its boniness that it has been underrated. However it is in its boned and filleted state that most of us encounter gurnard so the bones are not a problem.

Gurnard are sea robins, bottom-feeding fish from the Triglidae family. The red gurnard is from the genus Chelidonichthys. They can growl, believe it or not, using muscles related to the swim bladder.

Another interesting feature is how they stir up the sea bottom with their "legs" to find food. They feed on crab and shrimp which may account for their sweet, tasty flavour.

There are more than 100 species of gurnard found in different parts of the world. Red gurnard are found around the whole of New Zealand and are commonly and frequently caught in sandy inshore areas. They are readily available throughout the year in our fish shops.

It is interesting that gurnard are usually a by-catch, caught alongside larger, more sought-after fish.

Having said that, the demand for gurnard is high and Andy from Guyton's tells me that gurnard is the most popular fish in their stores. It is well known and a favourite with kids. It gleams at you in the fish shop and is hard to resist.

Each fish generally weighs around 1kg. Given their small size they offer lower returns to fisherman than larger species. They are more labour intensive to process than other fish, because of their size and their bones. They are therefore not cheap and retail at $21.95 per kg.

Like all fish, gurnard is good for us. It is not an oily fish but is rich in potassium and calcium. Called "carrot" by fisherfolk, gurnard works well with many flavours, including strong flavours, another plus in my book. Whatever the flavours, gurnard takes them on and gives them life.

It is equally fine dipped in flour, pan fried and served with a big squeeze of lemon.

Gurnard is most often associated with Mediterranean dishes and is often used in fish soups. My favourite way to prepare it is to bake fillets in a sauce, such as the recipe that follows with paprika, thyme, garlic and lemon. Cajun gurnard prepared the same way is equally delicious.

Gurnard can also be roasted or braised whole. The fish tastes delicious this way but you do have to deal with the bones. The best way to roast the gurnard is in its natural swimming position, flat on its belly. The bones in gurnard are placed in an inverted Y fashion, the bottom of the Y being the end of the pointy sharp fin (dorsal fin) on the top of the fish. The two other parts of the Y are where the pin bones stick out horizontally. The trick is to remove the fillet in two parts. Starting from the top alongside the dorsal fin, gently lift and remove the fillet as far as the point where the pin bones are located. Once the flesh has been removed you will have exposed the back bone and the pin bones and if you are lucky you can then lift these out in one piece. If you don't manage to do this, successfully gently insert your knife under the pin bone, parallel to the back bone and push the flesh away from the bone on each side. There are also bones around the gut cavity organised in a rib cage fashion. These can be easily removed by hand. Good luck!

RICK STEIN'S GURNARD FILLETS WITH POTATO GARLIC AND SAFFRON BROTH

Serves 4

4 Tbsp of olive oil
4-6 sprigs of oregano
1 small head of garlic
50 ml of white wine
1 leek sliced
550g of potatoes peeled and thickly sliced
600 ml of fish stock
a pinch of saffron threads
4 fillets of gurnard
2 Tbsp of rouille (instructions below)
1 tsp of capers
salt and pepper

Heat 2 Tbsp of the oil in a medium pan. Add the oregano and the unpeeled whole cloves of garlic and cook for several minutes until the garlic is slightly browned. Remove from the heat and add the wine. Return to the heat and boil rapidly until the wine has almost evaporated.

Add the leek to the pan and cook while stirring. Add the sliced potatoes, stock and saffron and seasoning. Cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes until the potatoes are tender.

Put the rest of the oil into a pan and when it is hot add the gurnard fillets and fry on both sides until they are lightly browned.

Add about 50ml of cooking liquid into the rouille and return to the potato mix. Do not boil or it will curdle.

Divide the potato mix on four plates and serve with the gurnard. Top with capers and chopped oregano.

To make the rouille

250ml olive oil

25g day-old white bread

3 cloves garlic

1 egg yolk

A little fish stock or water

2 tbsp harissa

Cover the bread with fish stock or water and soften. Squeeze out excess water and add to the food processor with the harissa paste, the garlic, egg yolk and salt. Blend until smooth. Gradually add the oil until you have a smooth mixture.

You can make your own harissa by blending until smooth one roasted red pepper, 1 tsp of tomato puree, 1 tsp of ground coriander, a pinch of saffron, two hot chillies and 1/2 tsp of salt. This will last in the fridge for about a week. It is delicious with many different dishes – try it with vegetable dishes as well as fish.

GURNARD WITH PAPRIKA, THYME, GARLIC AND LEMON

Serves 4

4 large fillets of gurnard – about 1kg
2 tsp of paprika
1 tbs of fresh thyme chopped
3 cloves of garlic
the rind of a lemon finely grated
1 tbs of olive oil
sea salt and 1 tsp of whole black peppercorns

In a mortar and pestle combine all the ingredients apart from the fish. Pound until it makes a smooth paste. Rub some of the paste into the gurnard and place the rest in a roasting dish with two more tablespoons of olive oil. Place the fish in the pan and bake for about 15 minutes until cooked at 200 degrees Celsius.

Serve with mashed potatoes and a salad with cos lettuce, avocado and cucumber tossed in a vinaigrette made with lemon juice.

GURNARD WITH PRAWNS AND TOMATO IN WHITE WINE

Serves 4

4 fillets of gurnard – about 1kg
1/2 red onion sliced
3 cloves of garlic finely sliced
250g of tomatoes
fresh basil
150ml of white wine
250g prawns, shelled with the tail shell left on
1 tsp of chilli flakes sea salt
50ml extra virgin olive oil

Heat the oven to 200C. Heat the olive oil in a wide, flat frying pan that can be placed in the oven. Add the red onion and saute until softened then add garlic and saute until golden.

Add the tomatoes, basil, chilli flakes, salt and white wine. Simmer gently for about 20 minutes until the sauce has reduced a little and thickened.

Place the prawns and the fish fillets into the hot sauce and spoon a little sauce over the fish. Bake in the oven for about 10-15 minutes until just cooked.

  • Research by Elizabeth Latham and Serge Crottaz of the School of Tourism, Hospitality and Wellbeing at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology. Fresh at NMIT appears fortnightly, exploring the local connection to food and beverages through the eyes of its leading hospitality educators.

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