|Creamy Snoek Chowder: comfort in a bowl.|
Oak-smoked snoek from my local Hout Bay harbour plays the starring role in this quick and easy dish. Properly smoked South African snoek isn't an ingredient you'll find on many supermarket shelves outside of the Western Cape, but you could substitute any similar firm-fleshed smoked white fish.
If you're lucky enough to be living in South Africa, ask your fishmonger to order you a box of smoked snoek from Mariner's Wharf in Hout Bay. This is a versatile ingredient that keeps well, and you can use any leftover fish in a snoek pâté, or in a quiche. Here's a recipe for Smoked Snoek Quiche, from Carmen Niehaus, and it's part of a very good article about snoek by veteran journalist Hilary Prendini Toffoli.
It's important to choose the right potatoes for this soup: if they're too waxy, they won't thicken the soup, and if they're too floury, they'll break up before the soup is ready. You can add a little cream to this soup at the end, but it's really not necessary: it's creamy enough as it is.
Please take the greatest care removing the bones from the snoek. Most of the bones are large ones, but there are also small ones that can lurk undetected among the fish flakes. Use your fingertips to shred the fish, and check it for bones three times.
Smoked Snoek Chowder, Cape Town style
300 g oak-smoked snoek
3 large leeks, white and pale green parts only
4 Tbsp (60 ml) butter
a small clove of garlic, crushed
3 Tbsp (45 ml) flour
4 Tbsp (60 ml) white wine
4 cups (1 litre) milk
2 cups (500 ml) water (or fish stock)
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
300 g peeled, raw potato, cut into 1-cm-square cubes
a pinch or two of white pepper
the juice of half a lemon
4 Tbsp (60 ml) finely chopped fresh parsley
extra-virgin olive oil
Pull the skin off the snoek and, using your fingertips, carefully remove all bones (look out for the little ones). Flake the fish and set aside. With a sharp knife, make a long length ways cut through each leek, slicing only half way through. Gently fan out the 'leaves' and rinse well under running water to remove any grit. Finely slice the leeks.
Heat the butter in a large pan, add the leeks and cook over a moderate for three or four minutes, until softened (but do not allow to brown). Stir in the garlic and fry for 30 seconds - just long enough to remove the 'sting'.
Tip in the flour, stir well, and cook gently for another minute, stirring all the time. Whisk in the white wine (the mixture will form a thickish paste) and bubble for 60 seconds. Then tip in all the milk and water, stirring briskly to break up any lumps.
Add the thyme sprigs and a three-quarters of the flaked snoek. Season to taste with salt and bring to a gentle boil, stirring constantly.
Tip all the potato cubes into the soup, turn down the heat and simmer for 20-25 minutes, or until the potato cubes are cooked through, but not falling apart. (Don't worry if the soup looks a little thin to begin with: the potato cubes will thicken it up).
Add the remaining smoked snoek and heat through for a further five minutes. If the soup seems a little too thick, thin it down with more milk or water. Season with a pinch of white pepper, and more salt if necessary. Remove the thyme sprigs.
Just before serving, and after you've removed the soup from the heat, stir in the lemon juice and fresh parsley.
Serve with a few dabs of Tabasco sauce and a swirl of olive oil.