FOOD & DRINK / Britain's new-wave chefs: Rick Stein sets the standard for seafood

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A new generation of chefs is dominating the restaurant world with a style that owes much to innovative methods and more than a little to personality. One ran a quayside disco before he mastered cooking, another worked for a Soho film company, most have travelled widely. Borrowing freely from the larders of the world, they have adopted and adapted to produce a style of cooking all their own. What distinguishes their approach is an intellectual curiosity that has produced cross-cultural conjuring acts such as Japanese soy-braised shin of beef, served with east European pickled cucumbers. In the first of our three- part series, we profile Alastair Little, Rowley Leigh and Rick Stein and offer exclusive recipes which can easily be prepared at home.

Rick Stein is a self-taught cook who has redefined British fish cookery. He opened The Seafood Restaurant in Padstow on the north Cornwall coast in

1975, and started writing about his specialism eight years later. His English Seafood Cookery (Penguin pounds 7.95) has become a standard work.

Stein wrote it because, once you had made stargazey pie and potted shrimps, there were no other decent English dishes to try. He borrowed from Europe at first, then started to incorporate fish dishes from all over the world. His most recent steal is sole cooked the Japanese way, its skin grilled until crisp and delicious to eat.

He is a little embarrassed that New-Wave cooking probably means New-Wave cheating. 'If you go to Tuscany or Venice, you eat hundreds of local dishes - and we don't have that. Aren't we a bunch of tarts, dressing up in other people's clothes?'

Both his parents were good cooks, especially his father - a director of the Distillers' Company, who used to take holidays in Cornwall and bought a half share in a lobster boat. Rick went to Oxford, read English at New College and edited the university newspaper Cherwell, before taking off on a world trek. He worked as a greaser on a cargo boat, and as a labourer with an Australian railway gang. Back in England he considered a career in hotel management and worked as a cook in the GWR Hotel in Paddington.

He had no ambition to cook, and settled in Padstow to open a disco in a converted quayside granary. 'It was a great success with the burly fishermen who got tanked up,' he remembers, 'but there were nasty fights with glasses, and somebody was beaten up with an angle iron in the car park. I was getting into fights trying to stop them and I was hospitalised twice. I was 25 and the magistrates decided I wasn't in control and took away my licences - but luckily not the restaurant licence for the top floor. We started a fish restaurant, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.'

Initially he grilled fish fresh from the boats for holidaymakers, but felt this was a bit of a cheat. So he signed on for day release classes at the local catering college. There was no budget to buy good ingredients, yet at the same time students were being taught a hundred ways to cook sole according to the cooks' bible, Saulnier's La Repertoire de la Cuisine. Rick Stein decided it was nonsense and managed to unlearn most of it, taking his ideas from books and from eating out on his travels.

His main source of inspiration is the fish itself. It is only now that people are waking up to its potential. 'In my early days fish was underrated. Sea bass was used for fish and chips. Monkfish was not valued at all; we used to describe it as 'other fish' in our seafood thermidor.'

He is almost monastic in his dedication to cooking and, oddly, gnawed by self-doubt. Happily, none of this shows in the restaurant - which is noisy, hearty and wholesome, a brightly-lit stage set. 'That's intentional,' he says. 'Restaurants should be theatre. They are not all about food.'

CARPACCIO OF MONKFISH

An Italian treatment of what is essentially a plate of Japanese sashimi - pickled raw fish.

Serves 4

12oz fillet of monkfish, weighed off the bone

(or fresh halibut or turbot)

2 dessertspoons of extra virgin olive oil

grated zest of one lemon

juice of 1/4 lemon

small leaves of rocket (or larger leaves cut in 1/2 in strips)

2oz (approx) Parmesan cheese (not pre-grated)

Peel the lemon zest with a potato peeler, put it in a cup with the olive oil and leave to stand at least one hour. Strain.

Remove membrane from the fish and cut as thinly as possible. Brush with the oil. Divide into four and place each portion between sheets of clingfilm. Gently flatten with a mallet or the side of a chopper. Put on a plate and peel off top layer of clingfilm. Place a second plate over the top, invert the plates, and remove the other layer of clingfilm.

Brush generously with more olive oil, but don't flood it. Sprinkle modestly with lemon juice. Decorate with fine shavings of Parmesan (use the slicer blade on your cheese grater) and garnish with rocket leaves. Don't add salt, there's enough in the cheese.

MUSSELS WITH TOMATO, CELERY AND SAFFRON BUTTER

In this dish the sauce concentrates and intensifies the essence of the taste of mussels.

Serves 4

60 large or 80 small mussels

2fl oz dry white wine

1pt fish stock (bones of white fish, onion,

herbs cooked 20 minutes and strained)

3oz inner stalks of celery, finely diced and

blanched in boiling water for 1 min

6oz cold butter, cut into small cubes

3oz tomato, weighed when skinned and deseeded, diced

1/4 teaspoon saffron

juice of 1/4 lemon

Scrub the mussels and remove the beards. Place in a large saucepan with the wine. Cover with a lid and cook on a fierce heat. When the mussels open, remove from heat, strain off juice and add it to the fish stock with the saffron. Bring stock to the boil and reduce to about 2fl oz. Bring a small pan of salted water to the boil and blanch the celery in it for one minute, then strain.

Set oven to 275F/140C/Gas 1. Divide the mussels between four plates. Remove one of the shells, leaving the meat in the other and put a piece of celery and tomato on each mussel. Don't let them get completely cold, and on no account refrigerate them as they will never taste the same again. When you are ready to serve, warm the plates in the oven without letting them get too hot. Bring the fish stock to the boil with saffron. Remove from heat, adding the lemon juice, and whisk in the cold butter a little at a time, building up an emulsion. If the sauce cools too much, you may need to return it to the heat briefly. Spoon a little over each shell.

BOURRIDE OF ENGLISH FISH

An uncomplicated interpretation of France's famous fish soup.

Serves 4

4 pieces salt cod about 3oz each, soaked 24 to 36 hours

(see salt cod recipe overleaf)

4 3oz pieces monkfish

4 3oz pieces of other firm fish,

eg bream, mullet, John Dory

1pt fish stock

2fl oz olive oil

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 leek, roughly chopped

8oz onion, chopped

1/2 tomato, sliced

2 or 3 parsley stalks

strip of orange peel

1 bay leaf

sprig of thyme

4 dessertspoons of aioli

(recipe overleaf)

4 dessertspoons of double cream

Make a poaching liquid by gently cooking the garlic, leek and onion in olive oil, before adding stock, tomato, orange peel and herbs. Simmer for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a steamer, cook the fish fiercely to firm and seal. Transfer to the poaching liquid and cook for five to eight minutes till done.

Remove fish and keep warm in a tureen or deep serving dish. Strain the cooking liquid through a sieve, pressing out the juice with the back of a spoon to extract as much flavour as possible. Pour a cupful of the broth on to the aioli in a mixing bowl and whisk, then add to the remaining liquid, and heat carefully in a pan without boiling, stirring with a wooden spoon till it starts to thicken like custard. Stir in the cream. Check seasoning, and pour over the fish. Serve with toasted French bread rubbed with garlic, or with boiled new potatoes.

AIOLI

6fl oz virgin olive oil

1 egg yolk

4 cloves garlic

squeeze of lemon juice

pinch of salt

Put the egg yolk, garlic, salt and lemon juice in a food processor and whizz for 10 seconds. Then add the oil, drop by drop at first, and process to a smooth mayonnaise.

SALT COD

Home-cured cod does not develop the old-sock pungency of the bought variety.

Completely cover fillets of cod in salt, cover, and store in the fridge. After 24 hours the salt turns to brine, and the fish is sufficiently preserved to keep for a week. Top up with salt and water to keep longer. Desalt by soaking for 24 hours in water.

REDCURRANT TART

This simple flan maximises the amount of fruit in the tart using only custard to bind it together.

Serves 6 to 8

The flan base

8oz plain flour

5oz unsalted butter

2 1/2 oz caster sugar

1 egg, beaten, half for the pastry, half for glaze

pinch of salt

The custard

3 1/2 fl oz double cream

2 1/2 oz icing sugar

2 eggs

1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence

The fruit

12oz pickled redcurrants (or blackberries or blueberries)

Set oven to 375F/190C/Gas 5. Mix flour with salt and sugar. Cut butter into small cubes, and crumble into the flour with your thumbs and first two fingers. When it is the texture of fine gravel, add half the egg and a tablespoon of very cold water.

Form the dough into a ball quickly, and push out on a floured work surface with the palm of your hand. Gather the dough back into a ball, cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Roll out and line a 9 1/2 in flan tin with it. Cut a sheet of greaseproof paper to fit, fill with dry beans and bake blind for 10 minutes.

Remove beans and paper, brush flan base with the remaining beaten egg, and bake for two minutes to create a seal.

Lower heat to 300F/150C/Gas 2. Combine the eggs, the sugar and the vanilla essence in a bowl, and add the cream. Mix well, but don't beat as you don't want to aerate it. Put the redcurrants in the tart, and pour on the custard mix. Cook until set, for 35 to 40 minutes. Remove and leave to stand for 30 minutes.

Dust with icing sugar, and caramelise under a red-hot grill. In the restaurant they use a blow torch. Serve with clotted cream, or a simple ice cream, vanilla, cinnamon or cardamom.

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