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As proudly announced in its national anthem, Australia is “girt by sea.” That makes for bountiful fresh seafood, ranging from oysters, to coral trout, to pricey greenlip abalone. One of the best places to sample this briny harvest is the Sydney Fish Market, the largest in the southern hemisphere. Unlike the “New” Fulton Fish Market in New York City, which is hidden away in the Bronx, you can reach the Sydney Fish Market easily via public transport. Best of all, it’s not just a big room with piles of gorgeous fish being watched over by rather tough looking seamen who drive a hard bargain. At the Sydney Fish Market there are multiple restaurants; a wine shop, so you can BYOB; a bakery; and even public toilets. All in all, very civilized.

Lovely fresh bonito waiting for your favourite recipe

After having a look at some of this bright eyed, fresh fish, you might be inspired to learn more about what to do with it. That’s where the Sydney Seafood School comes in. The school began in 1989 as a way to teach Sydneysiders how to cook some of the more unusual catch that was for sale such as, octopus, abalone, and sea snails, which otherwise would have been sold off as bait. Nowadays, Australian home cooks are a lot more adventurous, but they still come to classes in order to hob nob with some of the famous chefs who teach at the school such as Mark Jensen of The Red Lantern and Christine Mansfield from Universal

I arrived on a cloudy morning, with no real intention of eating anything, but one look at the crowds of people sitting at tables digging into sashimi, Thai-style chili crab, and exotic abalone, and I knew I had to at least have a little nibble of something.

Cocktail Abalone with Sichuan pepper and two pieces of Salt and Pepper Squid

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This article is part of a series of recipes suitable for the Medieval season of Lent during which all animal products other than fish were forbidden except on Sundays. I’ll be posting at least one Lenten recipe per week until Easter Sunday (April 4, 2010).

My series of Lenten recipes wouldn’t be complete without an actual Medieval Lenten recipe. This one comes from a Medieval cookbook called Potage Dyvers (Diverse Dishes) which was written between 1430 and 1440. It is found in the Harleian collection of manuscripts in the British Library.

The original is in Middle English, but thankfully back in 1888, the Early English Text Society of Oxford University published a translation, which is now in the public domain. Like most early recipes, it is more an aide-mémoire for a cook who already knows how to make the dish, than a real recipe, providing only a list of ingredients with no amounts, and precious few instructions. Trying to turn recipes like that into something useful for a modern home cook can be challenging and fun, involving lots of trial and error. In this case, I used a redaction done by Cindy Renfrow in her book Take a Thousand Eggs or More, a large collection of 15th Century recipes.

The middle English word “rapeye” (pronounced RAP-ee) means a sauce of dried fruits, boiled in wine and spiced. It comes from the old French word “rapé.” It was commonly served with either meat or fish. In this case the rapeye is mixed with fish and used as a filling for pies. Regarding the pastry, the original manuscript says, “Take Dow, & make þer-of a brode þin cake.” or “Take Dough, & make thereof a broad thin cake,” with no indication of what kind of dough. Since this is a Lenten dish, no animal fats could be used to make the dough. Most likely the cook was expected to make a simple dough of flour, salt and hot water, which makes for a pastry with about the same consistency as a rock. It is thought that diners would simply break open the pie and only eat the inside, leaving the tooth-breaking crust behind. I decided to cheat a little and make a dough using olive oil, not a common ingredient in northern Europe in the 15th Century, but which would make the pies more fully edible. It turns out that Lebanese cuisine has quite a few olive oil based pastries, so I borrowed one from the inimitable Anissa Helou.

Rapeye requires one unusual ingredient, powdered galangal. You should be able to find it in a shop carrying Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, or Indian ingredients. I got mine at Kalustyan’s in New York, which does sell by mail order. Galangal looks a lot like ginger, but it tastes sort of mustard-y and sweet at the same time. It is often found in the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.

If you’ve never tried Medieval food, you might be surprised at some of the flavors. Most of the recipes we have came from great houses whose wealth meant that they could afford exotic spices like galangal which had to come from Indonesia or China. In the same way that rich people nowadays might show off by serving caviar or foie gras, Medieval Lords and Ladies had their cooks dump the whole spice box into the pot. Many spices that we now associate with sweet dishes like nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon were used freely in main courses containing meat or fish. Our fish pies are no exception. The dried fruit makes them quite sweet and the spices used make them taste more like pumpkin pie than fish pie to the modern palate. In fact, I could barely taste the mild fish at all. Who knows, maybe that was the idea, considering how much fish had to be eaten during Lent maybe our Medieval cooks were trying to disguise it. After all, there are no rules against having sweets during Lent.

Rapeye

Adapted from Cindy Renfrow and Anissa Helou

Makes 12 6-inch half-moon shaped pies

For the Filling:
1 pound haddock fillet or other mild white fish
1 teaspoon galangal powder
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
6 black peppercorns, crushed
½ cup dry white wine
2 ounces seedless raisins
4 ounces dried figs, cut into 2-3 pieces each

For the Pastry:
2 cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons olive oil
⅔ cup water
more olive oil for brushing

Preheat oven to 400F.

Make the pie filling by simmering the dried fruits in a small saucepan with the wine until they are tender, or about 10 minutes. Remove the fruits from the pan and reserve the simmering liquid. Blend the cooked fruits into a paste using a food processor or blender. If you find the paste too sticky add a little of the simmering liquid and blend further. Put the fruit paste in a medium sized mixing bowl. Next cut the fish fillet into large pieces and blend it to a paste in a food processor or blender. Mix the fish with the fruit paste, add the glangal powder, ground cloves, and crushed peppercorns, and stir thoroughly to combine.

Make the pastry for the pies as follows: Whisk the salt and flour together in a bowl, make a well in the center and pour the olive oil into it. Use your fingers to work the oil into the flour until it is evenly distributed. The result will look like pebbles or breadcrumbs. Add the water a little at a time, stirring, until the dough comes together in a ball. Depending on the weather you may not need all of the water, or if the dough is too crumbly you can carefully add a little more (1 teaspoon at a time). Wrap the dough in plastic and let it rest for 10 minutes.

Turn the dough out onto a clean, unfloured surface. Knead the dough until it is smooth (about 5 minutes). Divide the dough evenly into 12 pieces, roll each into a ball. Cover the balls with a damp kitchen towel.

On an unfloured work surface roll each ball into a 6-inch circle. You may need the tiniest dusting of flour on your rolling pin to keep the dough from sticking, but don’t use much.

Fill one half of each circle of dough with the pie filling. Fold the empty half over the filling to form a half-moon. Seal the seams by pinching the dough together about every ½ inch. Use a pastry brush to paint each pie with olive oil, this will aid in the browning process. Pierce each pie 2 or 3 times with a fork to help vent steam during baking.

Bake on a parchment lined baking sheet for about 30 minutes or until light golden brown. The pies may leak some liquid as they bake, the parchment will help make cleanup easier.

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This article is part of a series of recipes suitable for the Medieval season of Lent during which all animal products other than fish were forbidden except on Sundays. I’ll be posting at least one Lenten recipe per week until Easter Sunday (April 4, 2010).

Asian cuisine is a tremendous source of Lenten dishes. There are many fish-based and vegetarian delights to choose from. These recipes often contain no dairy, or what there is can easily be replaced with olive or other oils. Best of all, this food is flavorful and exotic so you don’t feel like you’re denying yourself. In fact if you save these dishes especially for Lent, it can feel like a celebration.

Lately I have been infatuated with Fuchsia Dunlop’s magnificent Chinese cookbooks. Today’s recipe is a savory, spicy (but not too hot) fish dish from Sichuan province. It does require some specialty ingredients, but if you live near a chinatown this can be easily accomplished. There are also good mail order sources for much of what is needed (see recipe below for details).

Facing-heaven chiles, waiting to go into the wok

Don’t be intimidated by the bright red oil that drenches the fish. It’s purpose is to stimulate your senses with it’s deep color and spicy, almost floral fragrance, you are not expected to eat it. Take the fish out of of the oil with your chopsticks, leaving most of it behind on the plate, along with the whole spices which have also already done their job.

If you haven’t eaten Sichuan food before, know that while it is spicy, it is not as fire engine-hot as you might expect. One of the most important ingredients is Sichuan pepper which is not at all spicy, but instead causes a physical sensation of numbness and tingling in the mouth. It is very sensuous and pleasant, and really makes this cuisine special.

Fish with Chiles and Sichuan Pepper

adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop

Serves 2 as a main dish if served with a vegetable side dish and rice

Notes on specialized ingredients:
If you live in New York City, see my previous article about shopping for sichuan ingredients in Chinatown. There are also photos there of whole facing-heaven chiles and Sichuan pepper so you’ll know what to look for. Unfortunately, I have not found a good mail order source for the facing-heaven chiles so if you don’t live near a chinatown you may need to substitute. I have read that pequin chiles can be used, but the flavor is not the same. Beware, if you use the long skinny Thai chiles (also called bird’s eye chiles), they are much hotter than Sichuanese chiles so you should use less.

I can highly recommend the Sichuan pepper available via mail order from Adriana’s Caravan, it is very fresh and flavorful. They also carry the chili bean paste, which they call Chili Bean (Toban Djan) Sauce. When shopping for this item try to get a version made with fava or broad beans instead of soy beans.

1 pound filet of carp, sea bass, or other white-fleshed fish

For the Marinade
a 1-inch piece of fresh, unpeeled ginger, crushed
1 scallion, both white and green parts cut into 3-4 pieces and crushed
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
4 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons cold water

For the Base Flavorings
6 dried Sichuanese chiles (facing-heaven chiles)
1 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
5 scallions both the white and green parts, cut into 2-3 inch pieces and crushed
3 tablespoons of peanut or corn oil
1 tablespoon Sichuanese chili bean paste
1/2 teaspoon whole Sichuan pepper

For the Spicy Oil
¾ cup peanut or corn oil
1½ tablespoons Sichuanese chili bean paste
1-2 ounces dried Sichuanese chiles (facing-heaven chiles)
2 teaspoons whole Sichuan pepper

It is important to measure and chop all of your ingredients before beginning this dish. Once you start cooking it goes very quickly, so have everything prepped in small containers and ready to go.

Marinate the fish: lay your fish fillet on a cutting board and cut it into ¼-½ inch thick slices by holding your knife almost parallel to the cutting board and making very shallow cuts. Put the slices in a small bowl and add the salt, wine or sherry, ginger, and scallion, and toss gently with your fingers. Let stand while preparing the rest of your ingredients.

Snip all of your dried chiles in half with scissors and shake out as many seeds as possible. If you have sensitive skin you may want to wear gloves. In any case, wash your hands thoroughly with soap after handling the chiles and be careful about touching your eyes.

Cook the base flavorings: heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a wok over a high flame. When it begins to smoke, turn the heat down and add the chile bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is red and fragrant. Add the ginger, garlic, scallions, dried chiles, and Sichuan pepper and continue to stir-fry until it is very fragrant and the scallions are tender. Keep an eye on the temperature, you want the oil sizzling but not so hot that it will burn the spices. Pour the contents of the wok into a deep serving bowl.

Cook the fish: bring a medium saucepan full of water to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, discard the ginger and scallion from the fish marinade. Mix the cornstarch and cold water to form a thin paste. pour the paste over the fish slices and toss gently with your fingers until all of the slices are well coated. When your water is boiling, drop all of your fish slices into the pot. DO NOT stir until the water has returned to a boil or the coating will come off. Allow the water to come back to a boil and cook the fish slices until they are just done and nicely flaky (about 5 minutes). Use a slotted spoon or skimmer to remove the fish slices from the pot and put them in the serving bowl on top of the base flavors.

Make the spicy oil: Quickly heat ¾ cup of oil in the wok over a high flame until it begins to smoke. Turn down the heat a little and add the chili bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is red and fragrant. Add the remaining chiles and whole Sichuan pepper and stir-fry until they are crisp and fragrant, the longer you go, the spicier it gets. The oil should be sizzling but not so hot as to burn the spices. When it is ready, pour the hot oil and spices over the fish in the serving bowl and serve immediately while it is still bubbling.

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