FOOD & DRINK / A dash of fish sauce: Rick Stein, leading seafood chef, made a nerve-racking journey to prepare dinner. Michael Bateman recounts how he brought the meurette from Padstow to Pall Mall

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The Independent Culture
IT IS nail-bitingly late. Rain is spattering the fishing boats which bob in the north Cornish harbour town of Padstow as Rick Stein, proprietor of the Seafood Restaurant, and his two young assistants, Paul Ripley and pastry chef Fiona Cook, begin to pack the Peugeot estate. They are bound for London to cook a fund-raising dinner for the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts). It is their first expedition of this kind.

They should have left an hour and a half ago. They need to be in the kitchens of the ICA in the Mall, off Trafalgar Square, by 4pm at the latest in order to lock into a timetable which culminates in serving a three-course feast for 80 people at 8pm: carpaccio of monkfish, meurette of cod and brill, Venetian pine kernel and ricotta tart.

The Mall is four-and-a-half, maybe five hours away. They agreed to leave at 10 and it's already 11.30am. Rick calms his colleagues. 'As long there are no hold- ups,' he assures them, 'we'll be OK.'

They load the boxes of fish, around two stone each of filleted cod and brill; a stone of filleted monkfish frozen into cylinders; a binful of washed, peppery rocket leaves; two bottles of lemon-scented virgin olive oil; several blocks of Parmesan cheese; dozens of tender layers of uncooked sweet pastry; one-kilo cubes of ricotta cheese; pine nuts.

Last to be stored, the heart of the operation, is the meurette sauce. It has been simmering for two hours. This is a red- wine sauce from Burgundy in which freshwater fish is poached to be served as a stew. Rick has tinkered with the recipe and he serves it, unusually, with sea fish, preferably meaty, sweet turbot and delicate John Dory. Hopefully the guests will appreciate what's gone into it, and not just the effort. Ten bottles of Beaujolais have been emptied into an intense reduction of a mirepoix (chopped onions, carrots, mushrooms) with fish stock, chicken stock and jellied ham stock (this was made from simmering joints in cider for the delicatessen he has in the town).

The cooks transfer the meurette, still hot from the stove, from a huge kitchen pan into a plastic bin and ease it into the back of the car, which belongs to Rick's wife, Jill. 'It won't spill?' she asks anxiously. 'It won't spill,' they assure her.

'I'll have to press on,' says Rick, putting his foot down. The car shoots forward and everything in the back bumps around, heavy fish boxes sliding towards the pastry. Suddenly, with the force of a small volcano, the steaming meurette throws off its lid, and hot red lava splashes out. As Rick speeds on, his young assistants make running repairs, stopping the gush with bandages of cloth.

The desultory rain makes visibility poor and cars in front are crawling. Every time Rick tries to hurry, the meurette threatens to escape. There's a book by Paul Theroux called Mosquito Coast in which the hero takes a block of ice through the steaming jungle only to arrive at his destination, almost insensible, with the ice, which has melted down to the size of a pebble. Steady, Rick.

Rick Stein is the most acclaimed seafood cook in the country. He is author of English Seafood Cookery (Penguin, pounds 10.99). His Seafood Restaurant in Padstow is a favourite with reviewers, a bright theatre of light with splashes of greenery and colourful paintings. 'Modern and joyous,' says critic Emily Green. Paul Levy has groaned with pleasure about 'a meal you'd crawl a mile for on your hands and knees'.

Rick Stein never planned to be a chef, having taken a degree in English at New College, Oxford. But after bumming around the world, as greaser on a cargo boat and as a labourer with an Australian railway gang, he came home with the notion of opening a disco.

He remembered Padstow with affection from school holidays. With his wife, Jill, he bought and converted a waterside granary. However, the disco failed when the magistrates withdrew his licence after Saturday night fights. The idea of a restaurant was a desperate last throw. The cidered-up fishermen whose Saturday night punch-ups threw him out of business became his allies, and much of his success is due to the tingling freshness of the fish they deliver to his back door, 30 yards from the quayside.

Rick is hoping that the competitive price he pays for fish will allow him to meet the meagre budget of pounds 5 a head allowed by the ICA in their series of chefs' dinners. He gets no fee, but sees this as a flag-waving exercise and perhaps a bit of fun for his staff. But even with his advantages, he won't be able to do expensive fish such as turbot.

He builds the meal around the fish with a red wine sauce, but as he studies the budget, four courses rapidly become three. A fish soup is dropped in favour of a cold course, which is easier to prepare. Not a crab salad for 80, you'd never finish picking over crab shells, but his famous carpaccio of monkfish. Beef carpaccio is raw beef, frozen and thinly sliced, and monkfish carpaccio, Rick's invention, is the same idea, only it's raw fish.

Back on the road to London, and Rick is making good time. They arrive at 4.30, and take over the kitchens. Tables have been laid in the high-ceilinged Nash room overlooking St James's Park with a floodlit view of Big Ben. Rick busies himself putting out the carpaccio of monkfish, using a bacon slicer to cut thin discs off the frozen cylinders. It thaws at once. He dresses the fish with lemon oil, carefully tucking rocket leaves between the slices, and delicately inserts shavings of Parmesan cheese. Eighty times on 80 plates. There must be an easier dish than this.

With Paul at his side Rick oven-bakes the fish, a point (cooking fish and sauce separately in order to cope with 80 dinners). Rick tastes the meurette and decides it needs a lift (exhausted by the car journey?) and pours in another bottle of Beaujolais to freshen it up. He tweaks it a bit more with a shot of balsamic vinegar and some thyme.

At 7.30 the paying guests ( pounds 40 a head including wine, not bad) arrive for pre- dinner drinks and by 8pm they are sitting down. Waitresses dash between the tables with the carpaccio. In the kitchen the pace quickens as new potatoes are minted, broccoli steamed, and the deep red meurette is put to the oven-baked fish.

The meal goes swimmingly. If anyone notices that they are eating raw fish, they don't say anything. Every last drop of meurette sauce is mopped up until plates are clean. The ricotta tart, crisp, light, and tasty, is the perfect ending.

It's nearly 10pm when, as host for the evening, I introduce Rick, asking that the audience will be more kindly than that which greeted Alastair Little when he cooked at the ICA two months ago. Little had pleasantly asked if they enjoyed the meal, and one man called out: 'It tasted of school dinners to me.' Oh, really. 'If you can tell me of a school serving cold-pressed olive oil and reggiano Parmesan cheese,' Little snorted, 'I'll gladly send my own son there.'

Rick comes in, looking more like a monk than a chef in his robes, a little dazed from his exertions and the heat of the kitchen. The questioning is energetic: how fresh should fresh fish be, they want to know, and is frozen fish OK? He's cooked the meal, and now he's got to conduct a seminar?

Fresh fish keeps up to a week he says, but keep it in a cold moist fridge, at zero degrees centigrade. Put it in a shallow dish, covered with clingfilm, not touching, with some ice on top. Frozen fish is as good as fresh fish, as long as it is frozen immediately after it is caught. When it's defrosted, though, use at once.

Cooking times? It's not time but temperature. Not high enough and it's raw. Too high and fish turns to wet cardboard. Rick always uses a thermometer probe. Internal temperature of a fillet when cooked should be 40 to 45 degrees (and fish goes on cooking when it's taken from the pan or grill); a whole fish should be cooked to 50 to 55 degrees.

Rick asks them a question. 'Did you like the meurette? I was rather pleased with it.' (He means it was the best thing he's ever cooked in his life.) Loud and universal acclaim; they loved it. 'You call it a fish stew,' comes a voice (he from the Alastair Little dinner?), 'But the fish and the sauce weren't cooked together, so how can it be a stew?'

Rick? 'OK. So it's not a stew,' he says. 'I did read English at Oxford. But it's got a little rusty . . . Phew]' he said afterwards, 'I'm glad he didn't ask me why I call it carpaccio.'

Meurette of fresh and seawater fish with fleurie

A Burgundian freshwater fish stew using plenty of red wine gives a robust, full-flavoured dish. My version uses sea fish as well as river fish. The freshwater crayfish in the dish add a touch of luxury but may be difficult to get and can be left out. Incidentally, the sauce for this dish, sauce meurette, can be used with the shallots, mushrooms and smoked bacon poured over poached eggs as a wonderful first course.

Serves 4

8 freshwater crayfish

2 slices white bread

1floz/2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2oz butter

8oz/225g mirepoix

(chopped carrot, celery, leek, onion)

1 tablespoon brandy

2 pints/1 litre chicken stock

1/2 bottle of good red wine such as Beaujolais

1 sprig thyme, 1 bay leaf

24 peeled shallots

1/4 teaspoon sugar

8oz/225g button mushrooms, quartered

1 rasher smoked bacon, rind removed

2lb/1kg fish fillets one or two varieties

1 small bunch parsley

1 small clove garlic

1oz/30g butter mixed with 1/2 oz/15g flour

(beurre manie)

salt and pepper

Bring a pan of salted water

to the boil, add the crayfish and boil for 3 minutes. Leave to cool and remove the tail shells from the crayfish, trying not to detach the tail meat from the head.

Cut 1in discs of bread with a round cutter and fry in the vegetable oil, adding a little butter to improve their colour.

Melt 1oz/30g butter in a saucepan, add the mirepoix and sweat the vegetables until they are just beginning to catch. Add the brandy and boil off the alcohol then add three quarters of the chicken stock, red wine, bay leaf and thyme. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, brown the shallots with 1/2 oz butter and the sugar in a shallow pan. Add the remaining quarter of chicken stock and cook the shallots gently until tender. Turn up the heat and reduce the juices to a shiny brown glaze. Set aside and keep warm.

Cut the bacon into thin strips and fry gently in 1/2 oz butter. Add the mushrooms, fry, season with salt and black pepper, set aside and keep warm.

Chop the garlic and parsley together very finely (persillade).

Strain the red wine stock into a shallow pan, bring to the boil and reduce the volume by half by rapid boiling. Add the fish fillets and cook gently until the fish is just cooked. This should take about five minutes. Add the crayfish at the end.

Remove the fillets and crayfish from the pan and place neatly onto a warm serving dish. Break up the beurre manie into pea-size pieces, add to the sauce in the pan and stir. Add the shallots, mushrooms and persillade. Check the seasoning, add salt if necessary. Spoon the sauce over the fish, add the croutons and serve. I suggest accompaniments of boiled new potatoes, French beans and a bottle, naturally, of Fleurie.