(NYTIMES) - Easy cooking may not be as easy as it seems.
This simple truth became painfully evident on a trip to the port of Essaouira in Morocco a few years back. I visited the town to shoot a segment in a television show about Moroccan food and my first task was to grill a whole seabass over fire in an open-air restaurant.
Gathered around were a bunch of local kids, a production team of eight, a few chefs from neighbouring restaurants and anyone, really, that cared to come and watch.
Things did not go well.
A strong wind with a mind of its own, blowing in from the Atlantic, first over-stirred the coals, then blew them out and, finally, rustled black bits of char all over my fish, rendering it inedible.
By the third take, a makeshift covering was erected, but I was already covered in sweat and yearning to escape into the cool water my poor seabass had been lifted from only a few hours earlier.
Eventually, I did manage to pull together the fish and the scene, but I was utterly drained.
The next day, I joined a couple of fishermen on their tiny wooden boat as they looked for sardines. Within minutes, we had just enough for my hosts to make me the kind of breakfast feast they prepare for themselves every morning after hours at sea.
They gutted and filleted the sardines with their hands, minced them and added preserved lemon and some spices. They then shaped the mix into balls and cooked them on a tiny portable gas stove in a sauce made with some grated tomato and garlic.
The fish balls and sauce, stuffed into fluffy bread rolls, were a chunk of heaven.
This dish, created by Moroccan Jews who are long gone from Essaouira, inspired my fish koftas in tomato and lime sauce.
It also taught me a lesson about the importance of ease in cooking. There was nothing particularly simple about the dish I was so generously served; it involved some serious cooking with basic equipment.
The flavours were complex and well rounded. But there was a serenity and confidence there that comes from cooking something for the 100th time.
There was a great deal of intimacy, too, of the kind that, I can only imagine, just happens when you spend half your life with other men on a small boat.
Paradoxically, my anxious cooking in front of a crowd involved a dish that, in theory, was much simpler to make: a whole fish in marinade, grilled and served with a plain salsa. What could go wrong?
The mackerel fillets with pistachio and cardamom salsa, which is a simpler take on the flavour profile of my koftas, should be equally untaxing.
My Moroccan experience, however, showed me that stressless cooking is not always about "easy", but about "ease". It is not about a dish but about a state of mind.
For me, that means being able to create for myself an intimate moment in the kitchen (or on a boat, if that is where I happen to be); it means finding a quiet space to cook and properly engage; it means preferring the real show (sitting down for a delicious meal) over the showmanship.
Fish Koftas in Tomato and Cardamom Sauce
For the sauce
⅓ cup/75ml olive oil
8 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 green chilli peppers, such as serrano, finely sliced (and seeded if you don’t like heat)
2 large celery stalks, trimmed and finely chopped
1 banana shallot (or a large regular shallot), finely chopped
500g ripe vine tomatoes, blitzed in a food processor for one minute (or use two cups canned tomato puree)
3 Tbs tomato paste
2 Tbs granulated or caster sugar
1½ tsp ground cumin
1 tsp lime zest, plus 1 Tbs lime juice (from one lime)
8 cardamom pods, crushed in a mortar and pestle, skins discarded (or use a scant ½ tsp ground cardamom)
3 cups plus 2 Tbs/200ml dry white wine
2 Tbs/5g finely chopped cilantro or coriander leaves, for serving
2 Tbs/5g finely chopped dill, for serving
For the fish koftas
4 mackerel fillets (from two 500g fish), skin and pin bones removed, flesh roughly chopped into 2cm pieces
150g drained tinned sardines in olive oil, roughly chopped
1 heaping Tbs/10g pistachios, roughly chopped
½ cup/10g loosely packed roughly chopped fresh dill
1 loosely packed cup/15g roughly chopped fresh cilantro leaves (coriander leaves)
1 Tbs finely grated zest (from two limes); cut the zested limes into wedges or juice them, for serving
1 green chilli pepper (such as serrano), finely chopped
1 egg, beaten
5 Tbs/70g potato flour, divided
3 Tbs/50ml vegetable oil
1. Start with the sauce: In a large saute pan with a lid, heat olive oil, garlic, half the sliced chilli pepper and a good pinch of salt over medium-low heat. Gently fry for six minutes, stirring frequently, until garlic is soft and golden. Remove 2 Tbs of the oil (with some of the chilli and garlic) and set aside.
2. Add celery, shallot and 1½ tsp salt to the same pan and continue to cook for eight minutes, stirring often, until soft and translucent. Increase the heat to medium, add the tomatoes, tomato paste, sugar, cumin, lime zest and juice and the cardamom and continue to cook for another five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the wine, 350ml water and ¼ tsp salt and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook for 20 minutes, turning the heat down if the sauce bubbles too much, and stirring once in a while.
3. While the sauce is simmering, make the fish koftas: Add fish, pistachios, herbs, lime zest, chilli and egg to a bowl with 3 Tbs potato flour and ⅛ tsp salt and mix together well. Grease your hands with a little oil and roll the mix into approximately 12 golf-sized balls (about 45g to 50g each), applying pressure to compact them as you go. Add the remaining 2 Tbs flour to a plate and roll each ball in the flour so they are coated.
4. Heat vegetable oil in a large, non-stick saucepan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the fish balls and cook for about five minutes, turning throughout until all sides are golden-brown and crisp. Remove the sauce from the heat and set aside if it finishes before you finish the koftas.
5. After the sauce has been cooking for 20 minutes, transfer the balls into the sauce, drizzling over some of the frying oil (or return the sauce to medium heat). Cover the pan with the lid and cook for four minutes, until hot.
6. Remove the lid and scatter the herbs and the remaining fresh chilli over the top, then drizzle with the reserved garlic and chilli oil. Serve hot, with lime juice added to taste, or with lime wedges alongside.
Mackerel With Pistachio and Cardamom Salsa
½ tsp ground cardamom
4 mackerel fillets (from two 500g fish), skin on and pin bones removed
1 fat piece of ginger, 3cm long, peeled
2 Tbs/30g heavy cream (double cream)
2 Tbs/30gs sour cream (soured cream)
¾ cup/30g loosely packed finely chopped cilantro leaves (coriander leaves)
½ cup/20g loosely packed finely chopped basil leaves
Heaping ⅓ cup/50g pistachios, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 to 2 limes (for 1 tsp zest and 2 Tbs juice), plus 1 additional lime cut into wedges, for serving
1 green chilli pepper (such as serrano), seeded and finely chopped
4½ Tbs/65ml sunflower oil
1. Mix about ⅛ tsp cardamom with a pinch of salt. Rub on both sides of the fish and set aside until ready to fry.
2. Finely grate the ginger and then press the pulp through a sieve or a small strainer (with a bowl underneath): You should get 1 tsp of juice. Discard the pulp and set the liquid aside.
3. Use a small whisk to whip the heavy cream (double cream) until stiff. Switch to using a spatula and then fold in the sour cream (soured cream), ginger juice and a small pinch of salt so you have a soft cream. Keep in the fridge until ready to use.
4. Combine the herbs with pistachios, remaining cardamom, the lime zest and juice, the chilli pepper, 2½ Tbs oil and ⅛ tsp salt. Set aside.
5. When ready to serve, add the remaining 2 Tbs oil to a large frying, non-stick pan and place over high heat. Once very hot, add the mackerel fillets, skin-side down (the skin should sizzle) and fry for two minutes. Press the fillets down with a spatula as they cook to prevent the skin from curling up. Once the skin is crisp and golden brown, turn the fillets over and fry for another minute, until golden brown. You can do this in two batches, if necessary.
6. Transfer the mackerel to four individual plates. Spoon a quarter each of the ginger cream and the cardamom salsa next to each fillet and serve hot, with a wedge of lime.