"Well, let's have fish and brussels sprouts."
Before she had finished the sentence the man was shaking his head.
"Fish and green vegetables are never eaten together."
Postcards from Surfers, Helen Garner
I've been on a driving trip through Australia over the past week - thousands of miles of near empty roads, towering cliffs dropping away into the sea, and fields of yellowed grass. I vacillated between watching the scenery rush by, and turning again to the book in my hands, making my way through the small pile I had beside me by the time I reached Melbourne. I have such happy memories of reading in the car during childhood. I'm lucky to have always been able to do so, without feeling my stomach churn on the sharp corners, and so, while my family watched jealously, would plough through paperbacks as we drove up winding mountain paths, or down the highway to the coast.
In London, most of my travelling around happens on crowded buses or trains. I'm normally listening to an audiobook or a podcast, tuning out the world as I feel a handbag digging into my side, or am crushed under someone else's arm. Though I always have a book or three in my handbag, pulling them out requires space I rarely have. Being back in a car (especially with a friend behind the wheel), I've relished the chance to read books aloud, or in the backseat like I'm a child again, as the grown ups talk in the front.
I arrived in Australia six weeks ago with a stack of books I wanted to read. But as soon as I landed, and stood in front of the bookshelves I grew up with, I became determined to read as much work by Australian authors as possible. I read Picnic at Hanging Rock (aloud) as we made the long journey from Canberra to Adelaide, devoured My Brilliant Career on a bus from Sydney to Canberra, and re-read Bottersnikes and Gumbles with my feet tucked up on my friend's sofa in Melbourne. And when I reached Canberra, a friend I was discussing books with made sure I didn't leave before reading some of Helen Garner's short stories. I've been on the lookout for more brilliant short story collections, ever since Eley Williams' Attrib. and other stories blew me away last year, and Garner didn't disappoint.
Her short stories explore love, disappointment, longing, homesickness, and family. They feel familiar (especially given my childhood in Australia, and experience as an immigrant in the UK), and rich with fully-realised characters. She's a glorious writer - unromantic and realist, but lyrical in parts too; I can't wait to read more of her books. The domesticity of the stories means they're also full of food - choko relish and corned beef sandwiches eaten at Surfer's Paradise on the Gold Coast, disappointingly dry chicken ordered in a restaurant, and this meal, which never quite gets eaten in Paris. It's a brief story, barely more than a couple of pages, but I felt immediately drawn to it. The woman, lonely in Paris despite the constant presence of her French boyfriend, argues with him about eating fish and green vegetables. He's cross and dismissive that that's all they have in the fridge, she's certain it'll be fine; and that it's only food anyway. I'm on her side - with a handful of store cupboard ingredients, they can absolutely work together. And even without the fish sauce, the chilli, and the coriander, she's right. It's only food.
"If I were you," said the woman. "If I were you and it was my turn to cook, and if there was nothing to eat except fish and green vegetables, do you know what I'd do? I'd cook fish and green vegetables. That's what I'd do."
Fish and Greens
2 skin-on fillets of firm, white fish (we used Blue Eye, but do use whatever you fancy)
12 brussels sprouts
1tbsp sesame oil
1tsp rice wine vinegar
1tsp fish sauce
1 hot red chilli
1tsp toasted sesame seeds
1 handful coriander leaves
Knife and chopping board
Small roasting dish
1. About an hour before you want to eat, take the fish out of any packaging/paper, and place it on a plate in the fridge. If your fish is too wet when it goes into the pan, it will stick, and you'll struggle to get a lovely crispy skin.
2. Heat the oven to 200C. Slice the end off each brussels sprout, and pull any dirty outer leaves off. Slice in half, through the stem, so that each half holds together.
3. Warm a tablespoon of the sesame oil in the frying pan and, when hot, tip in the sprouts. Toss them around for five minutes, allowing them to colour in the oil, and then tip them into the oven dish, and transfer them to the oven for thirty minutes.
4. While the sprouts are roasting, make the dressing. Stir together the vinegar and sugar until the sugar dissolves, and then add the fish sauce. Deseed the chilli (unless you want it very spicy) and then add this to the dressing.
5. To cook the fish, dab the skin with a piece of kitchen towel to ensure it is dry. Season with a little flaky sea salt and pepper. Heat the second tablespoon of oil in the frying pan and, when it is smoking, carefully place the fish in, skin-side down. The skin will want to curl up when it hits the heat, so press down on the fish with a fish slice for thirty seconds. Try not to move the fish around too much, but take a peek at the skin after a couple of minutes. Once it is golden brown and crisp, carefully turn the fish over, and allow it to cook for a minute or two on the other side*.
6. Remove the brussels sprouts from the oven, toss in the dressing, and add fresh coriander leaves and sesame seeds. Serve immediately with the fish.
*Timings are tricky to offer here as it really depends on the thickness of the fish. Keep an eye on it - you want to pull it out of the pan just before it starts to flake as the heat will continue cooking it once you take it out of the pan.