Nigel Slater, guardian.co.uk, Updated: June 10, 2013 11:32 IST
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.