Plant Life Balance

Book Club #4: What we’re reading in November

A bounty of books that feed our soul, help us grow, and plant us firmly in the moment.

Your home is full of plants, you’ve said no to single-use plastics, and you never leave the house without your reusable coffee cup. But how sustainable is the food on your plate? For this month’s Book Club, Plant Life Balance guest contributor Maggie Scardifeld took a closer look at seafood chef Josh Niland’s The Whole Fish cookbook.

Words: Maggie ScardifeldImages: Rob Palmer

The last time I ate at Saint Peter, Josh Niland’s sustainable fish restaurant in Sydney’s Paddington, I kicked things off with throat on toast. The sticky skinned throat, an offcut taken from right under the gills of a snapper, was simmered in butter and oil, then lightly grilled over charcoal. It was one of the tastiest things I’d eaten all year.

Nose-to-tail cooking is certainly not a new thing – but fin-to-fin or nose-to-scale might be. Niland believes there’s far more to fish than the fillet (“get it on the plate, not in the bin,” says a recent @mrnniland post on Instagram). Hence his ingenuity. From Bass Grouper liver on toast, to Murray cod fat caramels – each species of fish and new preparation is more thought-provoking than the last.

Niland’s sustainable seafood philosophy was born while cooking at the now-closed Fish Face in Sydney, with famed fish whisperer Stephen Hodges. In 2016, Niland opened his first restaurant, Saint Peter, with his wife Julie. And just 12 months later, they opened Australia’s first sustainable fishmonger, The Fish Butchery, which sells lesser celebrated seafood species,and  dry-aged, cured and smoked fish and offal.

In September, Niland’s first book was published: The Whole Fish Cookbook: New Ways to Cook, Eat and Think. “Fish is the one protein that most of us would like to consume more of. So why, then, do we cook so little of it?,” the chef asks in the introduction.

This book is a fascinating, gentle education in eating seafood more sustainably, cooking with less waste, and keeping it local. Niland wants to hold your hand, and help you make “better decisions with fish,” he says. “Because this will, in turn, give you better experiences with fish and will hopefully diversify the fish on your table, no matter where that table may be.”

Niland deep dives into the less celebrated species we should champion: Mirror dory is excellent in the winter months, for example, and often easier to prepare than its more glamorous relative John. “Species to species and piece to piece – each fish has its own characteristics and a method of cookery that suits it best,” he says.

Along with detailed step-by-step guides on how to scale and butcher fish, and mind-blowingly beautiful photography of a whole lot more than fillets, there are also great tips for what to look for at the fish market (fish with moist, bright and clear eyes, and a light ocean water smell like cucumber or parsley stems. Never a fishy smell).

If you’re not quite ready to tackle a whole glazed Cobia ‘Christmas Ham,’ Niland’s fragrant fish curry puts Native Australian ingredients to good use including pepperberry, native ginger, native thyme and turmeric leaves.

Stinging nettle leaves, meanwhile, are blitzed with caper brine and anchovies to make a zingy accompaniment for sugarloaf cabbage, and sardines are dressed simply with an easy lemon-thyme oil.

Jamie Oliver called The Whole Fish Cookbook“a mind-blowing masterpiece.” Rene Redzepi says it’s “something to return to again and again.” And Nigella Lawson called Niland “a genius.”

I’d say there’s never been a better time for this book. Or for chefs like Niland. His boundary-pushing approach and openess to share his knowledge with the world will have you reconsidering just how sustainable the seafood that you cook and consume is. And hopefully, your entire shopping list will be next.

The Whole Fish Cookbook: New Ways to Cook, Eat and Thinkby Josh Niland.
Hardie Grant Publishing, hbk, $55
Available from mrniland.com

For more amazing images follow along on Instagram at @mrniland, @saintpeterpaddo and @fishbutchery

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