flavoursome fish

In the second of our three-part fish series, Britain's top woman chef guides us through traditional methods of cooking seafood. Also learn how to make the perfect fish and chips
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The Independent Culture
When cooked well, fish is truly the food of the Gods, says Sonia Stevenson. And how to cook it well is the subject of the second week of our Good Fish Guide.

Last week, through the medium of Michelin-starred chef Gordon Ramsay, we looked at seven trendy fish which often feature on top restaurant menus. This week, we focus on seven traditional methods for cooking fish, each of which can really bring out the best in the widest range of everyday catches.

The recipes which illustrate the seven methods are from Sonia Stevenson's new book, A Fresh Look at Fish, which is published this month (Mitchell Beazley, pounds 19.99). Readers of the Independent on Sunday can obtain it exclusively, postage and packing free, for pounds 17, (see special offer opposite). Sonia Stevenson is one of the most acclaimed cooks in Britain. Egon Ronay awarded his highest rating of three stars to her restaurant, The Horn of Plenty, in Gulworthy, Devon, which she ran with her husband Patrick for over 20 years.

He singled her out as the best woman cook of her generation and he made the audacious decision to launch the twentieth anniversary of his British restaurant guide at Maxim's in Paris, selecting her as one of his team of five chefs to fly the flag for Britain.

She was a rousing success with several hundred international guests, including some infamously xenophobic French gourmets of the Club de Cent and the Academie de Gastronomes. Considering that she was the first woman ever to cook in Maxim's kitchens, her success was extraordinary.

Keith Floyd was an early convert to her culinary skills, featuring one of her fish dishes in his first TV programme. In fact, many have been the cooks and chefs who came, saw and were conquered.

Some have sought permission (readily granted) to use her recipes in their own restaurants. In particular the fish dishes have come out favourite. Rick Stein, the most famous fish cook in Britain, credits Sonia Stevenson with inspiring him to graduate from being an ordinary seafood cook to being something a little more ambitious. "No one has had greater influence on my development. A book on fish cookery from Sonia Stevenson is a great excitement to me."

Her lobster quenelles are still on his menu at The Seafood Restaurant, Padstow, he says, and so is her delectable hake with onion and butter (see recipe under "Braising" opposite).

Remarkably, Sonia Stevenson is a self-taught cook. She was training as a violinist at the Royal College of Music when she met Patrick, an opera singer (and gourmet) 20 years her senior. When they married, he discovered, with some shock, that his wife hadn't the first notion of how to cook. But with regular visits to the best restaurants and a copy of Philip Harben's The Way I Cook, she became a good dinner-party cook. Cooking for sympathetic friends is one thing, but the leap to running a country-house restaurant would seem to be a reckless gamble. But that's what they did.

As a self-taught cook, she is understanding of the problems facing the home cook. Fresh fish, she says comfortingly, is wonderfully flexible. The emphasis is on fresh, she warns, and she never touches frozen fish.

"It's true, the more expensive the fish, the more delicious the flavour, which is why Dover soles make a dinner party dish and dabs a homely one. But really fresh dabs would be preferable to a smelly old sole."

Fish cookery is flexible except in the sense it is very different to cooking meat or poultry. "The wonderful flexibility of fish falls down when it comes to cooking time, in that overcooking any fish will ruin the dish. Fish is so darned expensive it's a misery to ruin it. The point to remember is that fish is mostly protein [and water]. Protein cooks at below boiling point of water."

This means you must be extremely attentive when grilling or pan-frying. She likes to cook fish on the bone and, if the recipe calls for it, lifts off the fillets after cooking. Fillets of fish (cooked off the bone) can not only cook too fast, but also tend to curl up in the cooking. It is easy to put a sauce to the fillets after you have lifted them off, she points out, flashing them under a hot grill to glaze them and warm them through.

The safest way for the beginner to cook fish, she adds, is to braise it slowly in the oven. It's also a perfect way of maximising the flavour.

DEEP-FRYING

It is necessary to have plenty of hot oil for the cooking of this dish, as the fried fish cannot be kept hot while successive batches are cooked; use two pans side by side if possible. Keep the shells on the prawns for added flavour and give people hot, damp napkins like those offered in Indian restaurants.

A medley of small fish and a few vegetables constitute this truly wonderful Italian fry-up. The secret to success here is in choosing a good balance of flavours and textures in the fish - not too many varieties, but all with rather different characteristics.

FRITTO MISTO DI MARE

115g/4oz whitebait

115g/4oz raw prawns

115g/4oz whole baby squid

115g/4oz queen scallops

grapeseed or groundnut oil, for deep-frying

double quantity of batter (below)

1 head of fennel, leaves separated and cut into 2 or 3 pieces

115g/4oz cauliflower florets, halved

50g/2oz button mushrooms

112 lemons, quartered to serve

Pat the fish as dry as you possibly can. Heat the oil until it is very hot (a cube of dry bread turns golden in 10 seconds). Divide the batter between two large bowls and put half of the ingredients in each. Lift the battered pieces out one by one, shake off excess batter and place them in the oil. (Don't drop them in or you will burn yourself as the oil spits back). Cook until golden and crisp. Lift out with a slotted spoon, drain the pieces on paper towels and pile up in a hot dish. Serve piping hot with lemon quarters.

BATTER FOR DEEP-FRYING

The recipe for batter given here produces a crunchy, light coating as there are no egg yolks in it, only the whites are used. It is important to get the oil to just the right temperature as the batter will then quickly make an oil-proof seal around the fish to prevent it getting greasy, while keeping it naturally moist and juicy. For this reason, don't put too many pieces of fish into the oil at one time or the temperature will drop and the batter seal will not form quickly enough.

4 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon grapeseed or groundnut oil

150ml/14 pint water

whites of 2 eggs

Mix together the flour, salt and oil and add half the water. Blend until smooth and thin out with the rest of the water. Just before use, beat the egg whites until they hold their shape and fold in.

PAN-FRYING

The simplest form of cooking flat fish, the fillets are first dusted with seasoned flour, then fried on both sides in clarified butter or oil until brown. This recipe can be adapted to most flat fish such as brill (pictured above right), John Dory, turbot, halibut, sea bass, sole. Since this dish has an Italianate aura, the cooking medium should be an oil. Perhaps olive oil, but not extra virgin unless you enjoy its strong taste.

PAN-FRIED FISH FILLETS WITH BASIL AND TOMATO

6 large or 12 small skinned fish fillets, about 1kg/2lb 4oz in total, each folded across in half

175ml/6fl oz olive oil

12 garlic clove, chopped or sliced

675g/1lb 8oz tomatoes, skinned and deseeded

4 tablespoons white wine

8-10 large fresh basil leaves

salt

freshly ground black pepper

seasoned flour, for dusting

6 black olives, to garnish

Heat half the oil in a large saucepan and add the garlic. Allow it to brown a little. Throw in the tomatoes, cook and pulp them down until they start to fry.

Add the wine and boil rapidly to reduce the liquid until the mixture begins to fry again and then add the basil leaves, torn up if they are big. Season with salt and lots of black pepper. Set aside until needed, when it must be reheated (should you have made more than you need, freeze the rest for another occasion).

Heat the rest of the oil in a large frying pan. Dust the fillets in seasoned flour and add them a few at a time, turning them once to colour both sides. Set them aside in a heatproof dish and keep warm until all are done.

When all the fish is cooked, reheat the sauce and pour it over the fish. Gently coat them with it, garnish with the black olives for colour contrast and serve with crusty Italian bread.

BRAISING

In this recipe, the fish is braised in the oven in a dish covered with foil to contain the moist juices. This is one of my very favourite recipes (adopted by both Keith Floyd and Rick Stein). It adapts well to any kind of fish cutlets, but I first used hake.

OVEN-COOKED CUTLETS WITH THYME AND LEMON

6 fish cutlets each weighing about 175g/6oz

2 onions, chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon fresh lemon thyme leaves

6 black peppercorns

115g/4oz butter

freshly grated nutmeg to taste

6 lemon slices

2 potatoes, parboiled in salted water and cut into walnut-sized pieces

Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/Gas 5. Gently simmer the onions, garlic, bay, thyme and peppercorns in 85g/3oz of the butter. Do not allow to brown.

Season the cutlets. Spread the onion mix in the bottom of an ovenproof dish and lay the fish on top. Put on top of each cutlet a knob of the remaining butter, a good grating of fresh nutmeg and the lemon slices. Tuck the potato pieces around, cover everything with foil, and bake in the oven for 35 minutes.

When the fish is cooked (the centre bone will come out readily), pour off the juices into a small pan and reduce them to a concentrated buttery sauce.

Remove any bones and skin from the cutlets, pour the sauce back over them and serve. For a special dinner, coat with plenty of thick holland- aise sauce before serving.

BAKING

Fish does not want to be exposed too long to the fierce, dry heat of a very hot oven, but it perfectly suits these stuffed parcels in filo; the sheets of pastry are brushed with melted butter for a rich, crunchy effect. Filo dries so quickly and may tear, so work with one sheet at a time, keeping the others rolled up in their wrappings or under a damp tea towel. This recipe works equally well with fillets of sea bass, halibut, bream, turbot, sole, hoki, John Dory or plaice.

STUFFED FILLETS IN FILO

6 fish fillets, each weighing about 115g/4oz, skinned or scaled

2 medium onions, chopped

175g/6oz butter

50g/2oz button mushrooms, sliced

12 teaspoon fresh thyme

bay leaf

1 teaspoon juice and zest from 1 lemon

salt

freshly ground black pepper

freshly grated nutmeg

2 eggs

6 sheets of filo pastry

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6 and season the fish fillets.

Make the stuffing in a large frying pan. First, cook the onions in half the butter with two tablespoons of water, until soft. Add the mushrooms, thyme, bay leaf, lemon juice and zest. Season to taste with salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg. Cook everything to-gether for five minutes until the mixture has dried out and is becoming buttery. Allow to cool a little and add one of the eggs, lightly beaten.

Melt the remaining butter. Lay out flat one sheet of the filo and brush it generously with the melted butter. Then, quickly place a fillet at one edge, top it with a sixth of the stuffing and roll up neatly into the shape of a cracker. Trim the ends and brush the top with some of the remaining beaten egg. Repeat with the other sheets of pastry and fillets.

As soon as possible, bake the dish in the oven for about 15 minutes, until it looks crisp and golden.

STEAMING

The best ways to steam fish are either to roll it in wet paper and then bake it in the oven, or simply cover it and cook in the microwave. The latter is an excellent means when just cooking for two people, but having to cook fish only two at a time means that it takes too long when serving six. Wrapping each fish individually in wet paper, then baking them all together and unrolling them only just before serving, suits fish to a 't'. The skin usually comes off with the paper.

Served with an acidulated, melted butter, or creme fraiche, this is a very simple and delicious way to treat fish, provided that the fish being used is really super fresh.

6 whole fish, such as brill, chicken turbot, John Dory, mackerel, plaice, salmon, sea bass, sole, trout, each weighing about 450g/1lb trimmed

salt

freshly ground black pepper

2 stalks of lemon grass, sliced in half, or 1 small bunch of fresh herbs, such as tarragon, red fennel, lemon balm or dill (optional)

115g/4oz slightly salted butter, melted and acidulated with lemon juice, or cold creme fraiche, to serve

Wet three to four sheets of greaseproof paper thoroughly and wrap the seasoned fish in about four turns of it, adding stalks of lemon grass or fresh herbs alongside the fish if you want to perfume it. Then, wrap the parcel up in a couple of sheets of wet news-paper, six turns in all.

Cook as described above. Allow about five minutes for the heat to penetrate the paper, then give individual flat fish only five minutes more and round ones 10 minutes (flat fish take less time to cook than round fish).

POACHING

Poaching is not to be confused with boiling (the temperature at which the protein in fish rapidly hardens). Bring the poaching liquid to the boil, then turn down the heat until the surface liquid is no more than trembling. Parsley sauce is a very British accompaniment for delicately fla-voured, fine-textured fish, such as cod, haddock, halibut or turbot.

POACHED FISH IN GREEN PARSLEY SAUCE

900b/2lb fish on the bone, filleted or in cutlets

125g/412oz parsley

575ml/1 pint milk

85g/3oz butter, melted

50g/2oz flour

salt

freshly ground black pepper

3 hard-boiled eggs, quartered to serve

Tear the leaves off the parsley stalks and crush the stalks with a meat mallet. Place them in a pan with the milk. Add the fish fillets or cutlets and bring up to boiling point. Poach gently until firm. Immediately remove the fish pieces with a slotted spoon and set aside in a warm place.

Remove the parsley stalks from the milk and pour it into a blender. Add the parsley leaves and liquidise until the milk is bright green and the parsley leaves are chopped. With the machine still running, pour in the melted butter and add the flour. Empty it all into a saucepan and bring mixture to the boil quickly.

Season the sauce with salt and freshly ground black pepper and pour it over the fish, which has been arranged on a warmed serving dish. Quartered hard-boiled eggs make a good addition or decoration.

Poached fish also lend themselves well to a fish salad. The following piquant dish would particularly suit smoked haddock or cod, monkfish, halibut or turbot cutlets.

FISH SALAD WITH GINGER MAYONNAISE

Making flavoured mayonnaise is an easy way of widening your repertoire of sauces. Start by putting the oil into the blender and then throwing in some tender herbs like basil or tarragon and whizz them up until the oil turns green or, as in this particular recipe below, just peel and grate some fresh ginger and puree it with the oil you are going to use to make your mayonnaise. With this technique, you can design your own personal versions of flavoured mayonnaise.

675g/1lb 8oz fish (varieties mentioned above), skinned, poached and drained

400ml/14fl oz grapeseed or groundnut oil

50g/2oz fresh ginger, peeled and grated

4 egg yolks

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

12 teaspoon salt

2 dessert apples, cored and diced

2 celery stalks, cut into thick slices, strings removed

6 small new potatoes, cooked, peeled and sliced

salad and crusty bread to serve

Put the oil and ginger in the liquidiser and blend well together.

In a bowl, beat the egg yolks with an electric beater, adding the mustard and salt until the egg yolks become pale. With the machine still running, incorporate the oil, a little at a time, to make a stiff emulsion.

Fold in the fish, apples, celery and potatoes. Adjust the seasoning if necessary and thin out the mixture with a little water if it is too thick (water thins, oil thickens).

Serve up the dish with a salad and slices of fresh, crusty bread.

GRILLING

SHELLFISH

BROCHETTES

A short burst under a very hot grill concentrates the flavours of prawns or scallops. It's important to inquire about the origin of scallops; many are soaked to swell them up before sale, the excess water making them tough and unsuitable for cooking.

225g/8oz queen scallops or unsoaked large scallops

450g/1lb raw king prawns

grapeseed or groundnut oil for the skewers

lime wedges to serve (optional)

For the marinade:

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon runny honey

2 garlic cloves, crushed

4 tablespoons grapeseed or groundnut oil

2 chillies

2 spring onions

Leave the queen scallops whole. Cut the larger scallops in quarters, removing and trimming any orange coral. Leave the prawns in their shells or remove all but the tail fins.

Blend the marinade ingredients in a liquidiser, pour it into a shallow dish and toss the scallops and prawns in it. Leave them to marinate for half an hour, turning them occasionally.

Oil six skewers (soak them first if they are wooden) and thread the scallops and prawns on them, placing the orange corals at strategic intervals. Grill the skewers for five minutes or less, turning them as needed.

Boil up the remaining marinade briefly in a pan for the dipping sauce.

These brochettes are wonderful on a bed of boiled or steamed rice spiced up with finely sliced chillies, spring onions and chopped hard-boiled eggs.

FLAT FISH

Halibut, turbot, brill and Dover sole (and witch or Torbay sole), John Dory, plaice, dab, skate wings.

FLAT FISH FILLETS

Flat fish are often used in a filleted form, either for deep-frying or presenting rolled up. Get your fishmonger to do the filleting for you, but ask for the bones and skin to make a stock.

When preparing fillets for poaching and presenting flat, I find the best way is to poach the whole fish in a stock, then slip the fillets off the bone. You still have the stock they were cooked in to make your sauce, and the texture of the flesh will be better because it remains stretched as it is cooked.

Skate is best filleted before cooking because the open structure of the flesh can contract and tighten into a neat, firm portion of fish. It is not usually sold as a whole fish, only as "wings". It has a cartilaginous framework - no bones, but equally infuriating.

When choosing your flat fish fillets, note that the brown side is best as it is always the thickest and meatiest.

COOKING WHOLE FISH

I know that cooking a fish whole can present problems through its sheer size. Just try handling a whole halibut, turbot (or tuna!) - a full-sized halibut can grow up to 2m (7ft) long. Fortunately, fish of this size are always sold in cutlets, in which case you can apply any round fish recipe to it. The same is true for turbot, tuna, swordfish and any of the other giants.

Smaller specimens can be wrapped in foil with stock and herbs, giving an excellent imitation of a fish kettle.

Whole fish usually have to be skinned after cooking, otherwise the flesh rips away with it. However, Dover soles are an exception and are a positive pleasure to skin raw. There is a knack to it: the skin is pulled off at an angle from just above the eyes to diagonally opposite under the tail, or vice versa, leaving a white web of fibres covering the flesh that holds it firmly together. Skate is the other exception to skinning - leave it to the professionals, unless you are very muscular.

Sometimes, as with turbot, you may want to eat the skin, so just leave it on. However, if the fish has large , inedible scales, you should remove them (see "Preparing Round Fish").

Remember that denser fish, such as turbot, will take longer to cook than open-textured ones like brill.

ROUND FISH

Tuna, salmon, salmon trout, trout, cod, haddock, hake, sea bass, sea bream, monkfish, grey mullet, red mullet, coley, gurnard, mackerel, herring.

PREPARING ROUND FISH

Nearly all round fish - particularly the smaller specimens of sea fish - have scales that must be scraped off against the grain if you want to eat the skin, as they are unpleasant (if not impossible) to eat. Luckily, it's what lies beneath the scales that really matters, and here there is more choice in texture and flavour than with the flat family.

Many round fish normally grow to sizes that are too large for a family to eat in one go, but there are always the recipes that need leftovers - from exotic terrines to fish cakes and flans. Then again, the larger fish can be scaled or skinned and then filleted. A few years ago, it was not possible to buy a section or even a side of salmon, but it is now. I don't think a fishmonger will sell a single side of bass, but he will fillet a whole fish for you, which you can share with someone else.

COOKING CUTLETS

The other method of preparing round fish is to cut them right across, leaving a centre bone that will slip out easily when the fish is ready. These cutlets take longer to cook than fillets, and the skin cannot be removed beforehand, which is a plus as far as flavour and texture are concerned, but a disadvantage for the "bone-conscious-can't-think-where- they-all-come-from" faction. Also, remember that wherever fins stick up on the back or belly of a fish, bones will be found digging inwards.

The size of the belly, or rib cage, cavity governs the number of perfect, round cutlets that can be produced from a fish. Hake, cod and monkfish have a long tail-end, while mullet are much shorter. Salmon compensates by having quite a thick layer of flesh around the belly side, but bass is a financial disaster as only the top half has meat on it. Avoid a plump- bellied bass, as it's probably swallowed a mackerel or herring whole and you are paying bass prices for half-digested, inferior, dead fish!

COOKING WHOLE ROUND FISH

A fish kettle is very useful for poaching, but the old-fashioned way of wrapping the whole fish in wet newspaper (see "Steaming" recipe) is even more effective. While the use of flavoured, salted water or court bouillon to give poached fish that certain je ne sais quoi was, until recently, very popular, it definitely alters the flavour, and is this really what one wants if the fish is in good condition? I think the flavour of the fish should be allowed to speak for itself.

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