Putting on my rose tinted spectacles, in days gone by it seemed every town and many larger villages had a butchers shop, a general store, a chemist and a fishmonger dotted along the high street before the hegemony of the supermarket swept most of them away. As an island nation, fish and seafood has historically played a significant part in our national diet. Here in Charmouth we still are fortunate enough to have three of the four shops mentioned but we do have six or seven good fishmongers within a ten-mile radius (and a good half of that radius is sea). Nationally however, in the last fifty years or so there has been an almost unstoppable decline in the number of high street Fishmongers, truly a threatened species. The result of this is that really fresh fish and seafood sadly plays a much-diminished role on our dinner tables nowadays. It is of course much more expensive then ever it was and is now considered to be more of a luxury than a staple.
My parents live in a suburb of south Manchester, well served by all the big supermarkets and retail parks but when asked could not name or locate a single fishmongers in their area. Indeed they are only ten miles from one of the largest “Retail and Leisure Centres ” in Europe, where according to my father you can “buy everything you want but nowt you actually need”. A google search found only three actual real bone fide fishmongers in a twenty-mile radius of their postcode, an area that is almost as populated as the whole of Dorset. Now I know that you can buy fresh fish at supermarkets but putting aside my personal antipathy to these institutions, I am always slightly suspicious that it is not quite as fresh as it could be. Having gone through the supermarket supply route, I always suspect it has criss-crossed the country from fishing boat to national distribution centre to local distribution centre before finally landing on the slab on a supermarket fish counter a few hundred yards from where it was landed a day or two before. I may well be wrong but I am not prepared to let facts get in the way of my pre-conceived idea in this matter. If my fish is to be as well travelled as Michael Palin I prefer it to do it under its own steam in the sea and let its last journey be the shortest.
Certainly living as close to the coast as we do we are lucky enough to have fresh locally caught fish available pretty much all year round and despite some species being under threat from over fishing there are many types of fish that are not. Fresh fish-wise, we are truly blessed.
Last summer a friend of mine who shall remain nameless as it would not be fair to Eric, was given a couple of beautiful fresh sea bass but came up to the hotel and confessed he didn’t really know what to do with them. This is one thing I do hear a lot, many people are not confident about preparing and cooking fish. I do understand that scaling, gutting and filleting fish is not high on everyone’s list of favourite kitchen activities but all fishmongers will happily do that particular task for you, remember to always ask for the fish bones and heads so you can make a stock, more of which in a couple of paragraphs.
The trick I always say with cooking fish is to do as little to it as possible. Simply dipping a fillet in seasoned flour and browning it gently in a little butter or oil ‘til cooked through and served with a squeeze of lemon is as good as any method and works as well for Mackerel fillets as it does for Turbot.
The only caveat is that you take care so that you do not overcook this fish, as it then will get dry. Fry presentation side down first so that you only have to turn it once, in a moderate heat so that the butter is just gently bubbling around the fish. When golden brown on one side use a fish slice or spatula to turn it over and do the same on that side.
How long you cook the fish for depends of course on how thick the fillet is .If it is a fillet of plaice which will not be all that thick, then a minute or so on each side will be plenty. If it is however an inch thick halibut steak, then maybe two or three minutes each side will be required. Either way do not be tempted to ramp up the heat as rather than cooking it quicker, it will just burn it and dry it out quicker. Think of cooking fish as just enabling the heat to gently pass through the flesh. If you are not sure if it is cooked through, carefully bend the fillet with a pallet knife or fork and if it cleanly “flakes” apart then it is done. If it bends but does not break then it may need a little more.
A more failsafe way is to cook fish “en papillotte”. This is a French cookery term that translates as “in parchment”. It is essentially sealing it in a paper or parchment bag which when cooked, means the moisture and juices from the fish stay in the bag with the fish thus prevents it from drying out and is very easy to do. I prefer to use greaseproof paper and the easiest method is as follows:-
One 12-inch square of greaseproof paper
Knob of butter or splash of olive oil
Squeeze of lemon
Butter or oil the greaseproof paper.
Place a fillet of fish in the centre, season and give it a squeeze of lemon juice
Then fold diagonally the paper from one of the corners across to the other. You can then fold and twist the loose edges of the paper tightly starting from one corner and working your way around so you have something resembling a paper Cornish pasty with a fishy filling
You can just fold over the flaps and staple in position if you prefer.
I would avoid using just tinfoil as the acidity from the lemon can react with the metal and taint the food.
This is then popped in a moderate oven for about twenty minutes.
Of course there are a million and one variations on the ingredients you can add to the bag. Herbs such as bay, dill, chives and tarragon work well. Swap the lemon for a lime and add a bit of ginger root and coriander for a more Asian take. Whatever you add, the principle is the same and all the flavours and juices stay with the fish when cooked and served.
I have been going out fishing with a couple of friends over the last few summers. I am what could best be described as hopelessly inept but I do like bobbing about on a boat just off the Dorset coast, chugging a beer and talking the kind of nonsense that middle aged blokes talk about when they are sat on a boat off the Dorset coast chugging beer but ostensibly fishing is the reason we venture out and though I have not troubled the Lyme Bay population of sea bass a great deal and most threatened species swim by us clearly unconcerned for their welfare, the one fish I can and do catch is mackerel. But then any idiot can. Which is fine by me because I like mackerel.
Mackerel is a much-maligned fish but fresh from the sea as many people round here know, is a real treat. Once landed, they do tend to deteriorate relatively quickly so are best eaten on the day of the catch; as it takes time to transport them to fish shops throughout the land, maybe that is why they are not so popular Filleted, floured and fried in a little butter with garlic and lemon, or chargrilled on an open fire on the beach they are unbeatable. Alternatively you can go South American and make Mackerel Ceviche, which is essentially ‘cold cooking’ fillets by marinating them for a few minutes in the juice of lemon, lime or orange with the addition of ingredients such as chilli, coriander and thinly sliced onion. The acidity changes the protein of the fish, which gives it a cooked appearance but it is still essentially raw. However don’t let that put you off, it is delicious and as it is quite acidic, it almost begs to be washed down with a cold beer. Or two. For the more daring or foolhardy amongst you, you could have a glass of what best translates as Tigers Milk (though the literal translation is not actually ‘milk’ but as this is a family publication…) This is the strained marinade in a glass with a shot of vodka or other spirit added and is meant to be a great hangover cure though I think I may stick to bacon and eggs, a cup of tea and a couple of Nurofen.
Now that you are confident cooking fish, you will need to make a fish stock for the sauce. Avoid using oily fish such as mackerel; plaice, brill, sole and the like are ideal. Wash the bones, heads and skin and remove the gills and any bloody bits as these can make the stock cloudy. In a saucepan add chopped leek, onion fennel, a bayleaf, parsley stalks and a slug of white wine. Add cold water to cover and bring to the boil. Skim off the scum that rises and simmer for a further 15 minutes, any longer can turn the stock bitter as the bones start to break down. Strain the liquid and return to a pan, boil rapidly so that the stock reduces and the flavours concentrate. When you have reduced it by two thirds, pour it into a Tupperware container, allow to cool and then refrigerate it. When quite cold it will set like a jelly as the gelatine in the fish bones and skin will have dissolved into the liquid. This allows it to be cut up into cubes and frozen (or pour it when warm into ice cube moulds) so you can just take out what you need when you need it.
For a basic butter sauce, which is a brilliant accompaniment to most non-oily fish, melt a little of the stock into a small saucepan with a splash of double cream and a squeeze of lemon juice. Then quickly whisk in a few cubes of softened but not melted butter, which will emulsify the butter into the stock, taking care not to boil as it may split. You can then add a few chives or a bit of chopped dill for a perfect fish sauce. As it is about 90 per cent butter, you do not need a lot so you can be parsimonious with it.