All about brill: what it is and ideas for how to cook it

” [Edouard] Nignon pulls out all the stops with the turbotin soufflé nantaise. The fillets of turbot are coated with a soufflé mixture and garnished with pommes dauphines — stuffed with diced lobster — and a sauce normande with poached oysters. Raveneau’s Chablis Forêt 2002 has sufficient freshness and puissance to cope with this exquisite creation.”

Rowley Leigh, describing his fantasy dinner party in The Financial Times, March 2021

Brill has always been  swimming in the shadow of turbot in culinary circles. But now it’s emerging as a good option in its own right, and, of course, the price has gone up accordingly. To be honest, I think I prefer it – it’s lighter, and less meaty than turbot, albeit not quite so sweet, but with more substance than a Dover sole. If you are going to do something along the Nignon lines, in the quote above, and still be able to get up from the table, you might be better off using brill rather than turbot.

It’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a large turbot and a large brill: brill are a more oval shape, and turbot have little lumps, which you can immediately feel when you run your finger over the skin.

all about brill
Some brill can grow almost as large as turbot – they don’t have the hard nodules on their skin that turbot have.

Here are some ideas for how to cook brill:

  • You can ‘tranch’ it. This is a technique which works for other flat fish too… turbot or plaice. You cut it into steaks, still on the bone, so they need to be hefty specimens.Roast tranches of brill in a high oven for a dozen minutes or so. Serve with fried chanterelles mushrooms and some lemon thyme.
  • Softly braise a bed of seasoned leeks and potatoes. Line a roasting tin with foil – enough to cover the contents of the tin as well. Use the vegetables to line the bottom of the tin. Top with either a descaled and gutted brill, or fillets. Pour over some dry vermouth, cover, and bake at about 180°C – fillets will not take as long as a whole fish.
  • Poach the brill: In a frying pan which can go in the oven make the beginnings of a stock…celery, onion, leeks, herbs, lemon, seasoning….top with the gutted brill… top again with dry vermouth. Once it’s simmering, cover with foil, and put in a low oven – 150°C for about an hour. Remove the fish from the pan, and keep warm. Reduce the stock in the pan to about half, whisk in some butter, and serve with the fish.
  • Fry it with capers and black butter.
  • Or serve with a sorrel sauce, or, as I saw recently in Food And Travel magazine, serve it steamed with leeks and sorrel and lime beurre blanc.
  • They also suggested caramelising the brill and serving with spring onions and wild garlic pasta ribbons
  • Or marinating it in a fabulous mixture of Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, coconut palm sugar, ginger…. you get the picture…and serving with black beans and crispy seaweed.
  • In his Taste of the Sea, Rick Stein suggests cutting large brill into steaks, roasting it, and serving it with hollandaise.
  • At the Royal Opera House recently I had brill with oysters, cucumber and a champagne sauce…. fabulous.
Brill with oysters at the Royal Opera House
Brill with oysters at the Royal Opera House

This recipe is based on another found in Food And Travel, but it’s a lot simpler. It’s good too the following day, served cold with some additional tartare sauce.

It goes well with Crushed Lemony Potatoes; or it you don’t want all the extra carbs you can add some fresh breadcrumbs to the shallots when you make that herby mix, add a spoonful or so of olive oil, and transform it into a sort of polonaise.

Recipe for Fried Brill and Charred Celery Hearts

Serves 2

Ingredients

  • 1 small bunch of celery
  • 2 fillets of brill – a small one – total about 80g
  • butter for frying, and dotting
  • rapeseed oil for frying
  • 1 small shallot
  • 1 tbsp capers
  • zest and juice of a lime
  • 1 hard boiled egg
  • 2 tbsps herbs – lemon thyme and parsley ideally
  • 60 ml/¼ cup dry vermouth
  • salt and pepper

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C, and warm some rapeseed oil in a frying pan.
  2. Cut off the top of the celery (reserving the leaves) and cut it in half vertically.
  3. Fry the cut side of the celery in the pan, to caramelise it.
  4. Put cut side up in a roasting tin, season, dot with butter and pour over the vermouth. Braise for about 20 minutes.
  5. Chop the shallot, and fry it. Take it out of the pan, and mix it with some chopped capers, chopped herbs, some of the reserved celery leaves, chopped, and the zest of the lime.
  6. Separate the egg yolk from the white. Chop the white and add to the herb and shallot mix.
  7. Fry the fillets on both sides for a couple of minutes. You will find the skin comes away quite easily.
  8. On each plate put half the herb and shallot mix; one half of the celery; and the brill fillet (or fillets) – leaving the skin in the pan as you do so.
  9. Crisp up the fish skin (some people don’t like the skin – you can have their share!) in the pan, and serve on the plate sprinkled with a little textured salt (eg Maldon).
  10. Sprinkle over the egg yolk, and serve.
brill with celery
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