Flavoursome fish

FOOD & DRINK: Seafood is the latest star of the restaurant table. In the first of a three-part series on New Wave fish cookery, one of Britain's top young chefs introduces some of the hottest catches
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The Independent Culture
Seared tuna, sushi, monkfish kebabs, filo parcels of salmon, tartare of sea bass. The choice of fish dishes on restaurant menus has never been so extensive.

Fish cookery is enjoying a renaissance. It's perceived as healthy (low in fat, the ideal slimmer's choice). It's seen as a safe category of food not implicated in health scares (BSE in beef, salmonella in chickens). But above all, in the hands of fine cooks, it can often be a tastier option than meat or chicken.

In smart restaurants, of course, fish has never been out of fashion, but usually as a premium choice; turbot and halibut, Dover sole and lobster. The modern chef uses skill to work magic on cheaper fish, cod and conger eel, fresh mackerel and squid. In this way fish cookery has been undergoing a happy metamorphosis.

For the home cook, however, fish is not necessarily an easy option. It is not a generous medium for the careless or impatient cook. When you grill or fry a piece of fish, for example, it can change from the raw and unpalatable to tough and overcooked in half a minute. To help us understand New Wave fish cookery, therefore, we have enlisted the help of some of the best fish cooks of our day.

In week one we invite Gordon Ramsay, an outstanding young chef, to share some of the secrets that won him a Michelin Star within a year of opening his London restaurant, the Aubergine. He will be describing how he cooks those fish which have become the new stars of the restaurant scene, such as sea bass, blue-fin tuna, John Dory, and sea bream. He also illustrates, step-by-step, a sensational party-dish: a colourful fish terrine.

Next week Sonia Stevenson, one of Britain's most distinguished cooks, illustrates traditional techniques of fish cookery. And one of Britain's foremost fish friers reveals some tips of the trade.

In the third and final week we look at the future of fish cookery. We talk to cooks who describe the properties of new species of fish, such as orange roughy, hoki and trevally. And chefs who have adopted styles of cooking from abroad share recipes such as Thai spiced mussels and Cajun blackened redfish. Finally, a Japanese expert gives a lesson in sushi preparation.

Gordon Ramsay's restaurant in Chelsea, the Aubergine, is fully-booked six weeks ahead. As hot tickets go, he's sizzling. And this is due, in no small part, to his virtuoso skill at cooking fish, usually the mark of a great chef. At 29 he's an unlikely star of the stove, this being his second career. At the age of 18 he was playing for Scotland's top football club, Glasgow Rangers. Stunned when the club dispensed with his services after only one season (he played two first-team games at left back, alongside Scotland's leading goal scorer, Ally McCoist) he decided to leave football for good rather than seek a lesser club.

His attitude to cooking has been equally ambitious. He set his course for the stars - Michelin three-starred chefs to be precise - and has collected as his mentors no fewer than six of the most luminous. He had no special feeling for food beyond loving his mum's stews and her bread-and-butter pudding, he says. "I did not pod peas at my grandmother's knee, gather forest mushrooms, or chase farmyard hens."

For this reason he seems happy to acknowledge his teachers, adding with grim amusement; "But you have to be prepared to work hard, keep your head down, listen and take a lot of merde."

Sometimes, examining the recipes in a chef's oeuvre, you wonder if anyone can cook from them except other chefs or would-be participants on Masterchef. I put this to cookery writer Roz Denny, who acted as Gordon Ramsay's amanuensis, taking down the recipes from him as he cooked in his kitchen over a 15-month period for his new book Passion for Flavour. The dishes served in the restaurant are by no means for everyday cooking, she agrees. But wouldn't we all be proud to produce any one of his dishes when entertaining friends on a special occasion? And there are exciting skills that hobby cooks can learn from gifted modern chefs, especially those as young and inspired as Gordon Ramsay.

"It was the most wonderful 15 months working with Gordon and his lads," she says. "Though it has turned me into an insufferable food snob, because few other chefs pack so much flavour into their sauces. More than anything else, working at that level re-introduced me to the sheer pleasure of cooking. We all get so bogged down with `quick-and-easy' instant recipes that we lose touch with the original and the best."

She learned to get into the habit of doing her own mise-en-place (preparing food in advance in the morning, or even the night before, and keeping it chilled until ready to cook).

"I kept stocks in the freezer, shallot confit in the fridge, frozen cubes of fresh tomato puree. Puff pastry was so well worth making in bulk, you realise how much has been lost in factory pastry.

"I gave a dinner party cooking his brill in veal sauce and everybody had an orgasm. `Ooaagh, aahrgh, whoooah!' It stopped them all in their tracks."

To enable the beginner cook as well the advanced hobby cook to share in Gordon Ramsay's skills, we have selected seven fish which star on his menu, asking him to describe their cooking profiles, and the techniques he uses in his restaurant. In order not to frighten off the homelier of home cooks, we have concentrated on the basics of cooking the fish rather than his brilliant sauces and accompaniments, though aspirants will find some elaborations to attempt (including sea bass with vanille jus, his signature dish), the full bouillabaisse, and his startling fish terrine which is not quite as impossible as it sounds. So here, then, are his seven fishy stars.

Readers of the Independent on Sunday who want to follow up on the finer detail can order a copy of his book Passion for Flavour at the exclusively reduced price of pounds 20 which includes postage and packaging. See overleaf for full details.