Rick Stein became a cook by default. In his mid-twenties he arrived in Padstow, Cornwall, as a hotel-management graduate, with a plan to open a discowith his wife, Jill. He converted a fish warehouse and started up in this yachter's summer retreat.
After some escapades in which he tried to separate pixillated fishermen who were fighting in the disco's car park (landing up in hospital as a result), the magistrates withdrew his drinks licence on the grounds that he was too immature to handle the lively locals.
What to do with the premises they'd spent their savings on? It was in desperation he turned to the idea of servicing summer visitors by frying up the fish landed daily at the quayside. Fish and chips, basically. He soon realised he'd have to take cooking classes, and thus had an uneasy encounter with the classics of the French kitchen. Rick couldn't see the relevance of these dishes to holiday-makers.
He began to read recipe books and visit restaurants such as The Horn of Plenty run by Sonia Stevenson, who we featured last week. He found her fish cookery inspiring and she was happy to share her recipes with him (several appear on his menu at The Seafood Restaurant at Padstow).
So it is that over 20 years he has been building up a repertoire which owes as much to his friendships with other modern chefs as to his extensive travels in Europe and the Far East. But it is one thing to enjoy a dish abroad, another to try to hijack it. He is only too aware that most of his customers may not yet be ready for the culture shock of, say, biting on raw pufferfish.
Alastair Little is another trailblazer. His gastronomic travels started within 100 yards of his own restaurant - Alastair Little, in Soho - where he explored the Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Thai, Malaysian and Japanese restaurants on his doorstep. All have provided him with unusual shades of colour for his kitchen palette, though the predominant notes remain French (his first love) and Italian (his abiding romance; his new book, Alastair Little's Italian Kitchen, is centred on his cookery school in Orvieto). Not to mention Scandinavian: his partner, Kirsten, is Danish.
Alastair Little is a hands-on cook but, as a Cambridge graduate, there is something unarguably academic about his knack of deconstructing a dish. That he has spawned a school of Alastair Little cookalikes is no bad thing for British cooking. He doesn't seek novelty. His originality lies in isolating the spirit of a dish. He adheres to unfussy techniques. The quality of fresh ingredients is paramount to him.
So, which seven countries most influence modern British cooking, especially with regard to fish?
Both see French fish cooking, with its creamy, buttery sauces, as the base they first built on. Alastair still salivates at the thought of the dishes of Normandy, such as sole Dieppoise with mussels.
China. Stir-frying has revolutionised British cooking. The way they steam fish is a revelation. It was in a Chinese restaurant that Alastair first experienced the combining of meat with fish. Then there's Japan: Rick has moved as close as he dare to serving raw fish (as in sashimi) without unnerving his customers. He was one of the first to serve seared fish.
South and Central America. Rick remembers the thrill of visiting Mexico and tasting fresh green chillies. "All the tastes were so fresh; the chillies, coriander, lime juice." These are the ingredients of a ceviche (or seviche), the Pacific coast dish of raw fish "cooked" in a cold marinade of lime juice and perked up with chillies, tomato and coriander.
Alastair and Rick love Italy as only true cooks can. Alastair became a convert when he discovered the superior quality of their ingredients.
It is over 20 years ago since the first London Thai restaurants opened and both cooks disovered the unique flavours of lemon grass, lime leaves, galingale and ginger, perfumed basil and bitingly-hot chillies.
Seventh place equal: Scandinavia and India. Alastair leans to Scandinavia, having frequently visited Denmark. We owe gravad lax to them, a robust alternative to smoked salmon. Denmark, Norway and Sweden are less of an influence, both agree, than they deserve to be, given their tasty soused, pickled, brined and preserved fish. Alastair loves eating out in Indian restaurants, though he has never really adopted their spicing, but Rick has enjoyed a flirtation with Indian curried fish after visiting Goa.
The following selection of recipes from modern British fish cookery illustrate the increasing influence of Mediterranean, Asian, Hispanic-American, and Australasian cooking on our leading chefs.
GRAVAD TREVALLY WITH MUSTARD AND CHIVE SAUCE
Here, Glynn Christian uses New Zealand trevally which pickles well in the same way as salmon or trout, but at a fraction of the price.
Serves 8 as a starter
4 x 175g/6oz skinless New Zealand trevally fillets
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
12 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 heaped tablespoon each sea salt and caster sugar
1 tablespoon brandy
1 heaped tablespoon chopped dill
2 tablespoons French grain mustard
2 teaspoons clear honey
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped chives
Dry all four trevally fillets really well on kitchen paper.
Coarsely crush peppercorns and fennel seeds, mix with the sea salt, sugar, brandy and dill. Divide into three portions. Take two trevally fillets and spread each side with a portion of pickling mix. Lay flat on a china or glass dish. Place two more fillets on top and spread with the remaining mix. Cover tightly with clingfilm, then place a board or second plate on top and weight it down. Refrigerate for a minimum of 18 hours, or up to three days, turning the fillets over every 12 hours.
To serve, cut the trevally obliquely into thin slices and arrange on a serving plate, garnished with sprigs of dill. Combine all the remaining ingredients together for the sauce.
Ceviche is one of the newest additions to the British fish repertoire, imported from the Pacific shores of Central and South America. I first tasted it in Peru (made with the cheapest fish) and then later in Chile (made with the most expensive fish). This latter version is from chef Fernando Walker of Delmonico's, Santiago.
Serves 4 as a starter
500g/1lb firm white fish (such as sea bass)
juice of 2 limes
1 red onion, finely sliced
salt and pepper to taste
For the dressing:
1 tablespoon good olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed, chopped
2 green chillies, finely chopped (deseeded or not, according to taste)
1 tablespoon chopped coriander leaves
12 red pepper, deseeded, diced
Remove skin and bones from fish, cut into 1in cubes. Place in a glass (or non-reactive dish) with lime juice, onion and seasoning, and leave for 30 minutes (or up to four hours for thoroughly "cooked", opaque fish). In Chile, they like it quite raw.
Before serving, toss with oil, garlic, chillies, and sprinkle with coriander and diced peppers. (Optional addition, a skinned, deseeded, chopped tomato).
ROAST COD WITH AIOLI AND BUTTER BEANS
Rick Stein has brilliantly created a hot version of the classic Provencal dish aioli garni. Here, a fillet of cod is served roasted with sea salt and is accompanied by aioli (garlic mayonnaise), butter beans, fennel and a fish fumet flavoured with basil.
4 fillets of cod, skin on, each weighing about 175-200g/6-7oz
50g/2oz butter beans
1 bulb Florence fennel
melted butter, for brushing
freshly ground black pepper
aioli (garlic-flavoured mayonnaise)
6 basil leaves, thinly sliced (for garnish)
For the sauce:
225g/8oz chopped mixed carrot, leek, celery and onion
50g/2oz unsalted butter
1 tablespoon cognac
10g/14oz dried mushrooms
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
14 red chilli
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
600ml/1 pint fish stock
12 teaspoon salt
4 fresh basil leaves, finely sliced
To make the sauce, sweat the mixture of carrot, leek, celery and onion in a large pan with half the butter, until soft. Add the cognac and let it boil, then add all the rest of the sauce ingredients, except the remaining butter and basil leaves. Simmer for 30 minutes then pass through a fine sieve. Bring the sauce back to the boil and simmer until it has been reduced to about 150ml (5fl oz).
Bring the butter beans to the boil in a large pan of salted water. Simmer them gently until very soft. Remove from the heat and keep warm in the cooking liquid.
Place the eggs in boiling water and boil for eight minutes. Drain, remove the shells and keep warm.
Remove the outer leaves of the fennel but don't cut off the tops. Slice into thin sections, then cook in salted water until just tender. Drain and keep warm.
Preheat the oven to 230C/450F/ Gas 8. Roast the cod in the oven until just cooked through. This will take 10-15 minutes depending on the thickness of the fillets. Place the cod on four warmed plates, brush with melted butter and season. Drain the butter beans, season and divide between the plates. Add the fennel, then cut the eggs in half and put one half on each plate, then add a spoonful of aioli to each serving.
Bring the sauce to the boil and whisk in the last 25g (1oz) of butter, then add the basil leaves. Pour the sauce over the butter beans, egg and fennel and serve.
STEAMED RED SNAPPER
Dorchester chef de cuisine Willi Elsener incorporates flavours from all over the world in his cooking, although his training was strictly French. This dish was inspired after working in Hong Kong, where he watched the preparation of a 12-course meal for 1,000 people. This, recipe, however, only serves four.
4 medium-sized red snapper fillets, scales removed
fresh basil leaves, to garnish
For the mousse:
100g/4oz skinless, boneless red snapper, chilled
1 egg white
100ml/4fl oz double cream
salt and freshly ground pepper
34 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon finely chopped parsley
For the vegetables:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
12 teaspoon finely chopped fresh hot chilli pepper (seeded)
200g/7oz leek, white and pale green, cut into strips
50g/2oz oyster mushrooms, cut into strips
1 red sweet pepper, seeds removed, cut into strips
50ml/2fl oz fish stock
For the mousse, roughly chop the fish, working quickly to ensure it remains cold. Put into a food processor with the egg white and blend to a fine puree. Turn into a bowl and chill.
Set the bowl in a larger bowl of crushed ice. Using a wooden spatula, gradually mix in the cream. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add the ginger and chopped parsley.
Pierce the skin of the snapper fillets with a very sharp knife. Turn the fillets skin-side down on a tray and season them, then use a spatula to spread the mousse gently on top. Put into the refrigerator to chill.
Heat the vegetable oil in a non-stick pan, add the chilli pepper, leek, mushrooms and red pepper and fry for one minute. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, then add the fish stock and bring to the boil. Pour into an ovenproof dish large enough to hold the four fillets.
To finish the dish, arrange the snapper fillets, skin-side up, on top of the vegetable mixture and next to each other. Cover with a lid and cook in the oven, preheated to 200C/400F/Gas 6 for about eight minutes, depending on the thickness of the snapper fillets. Garnish the fish with the basil leaves and serve.
MONKFISH WITH SAFFRON AND ROASTED RED PEPPER DRESSING
Golden saffron and deep red peppers bring colour, flavour and a sense of the exotic to Rick Stein's essentially simple, grilled fish.
4 fillets of monkfish, each weighing about 200g/7oz
25ml/1fl oz olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely chopped
12 teaspoon salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the roasted pepper sauce:
600ml/1 pint fish stock
85ml/3fl oz dry vermouth
large pinch of saffron
2 red peppers
85ml/3fl oz virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar or sherry vinegar
salt and freshly ground pepper
small knob unsalted butter
1.2l/2 pint measuring jug, loosely filled with salad leaves
*15ml/1 tablespoon lemon olive oil
good pinch of sea salt, preferably coarse
To make the roasted-pepper sauce, put the fish stock, vermouth and saffron in a small pan and simmer to reduce the volume by three quarters. Roast the red peppers by putting them on a tray (you don't need to coat them with any oil) and charring them under the grill, or in a hot oven, until the skins are blistered. Leave to cool, cut in half, remove the seeds, take off the skins and finely chop the flesh. Then, mix together the virgin olive oil, vinegar, salt and ground pepper.
Light the barbecue 30-40 minutes before you intend to grill the monkfish. (You can, as with all my char-grilled recipes, use a ribbed steak pan instead if you wish.)
Brush the fillets of monkfish with a mixture made up of the olive oil, thyme, salt and pepper. They will take about 10 minutes to cook. Turn them over frequently to prevent burning.
Return the fish stock and saffron to the heat, add the chopped red peppers and the olive oil dressing and bring to a brisk boil. Check that the sauce is pleasantly strong; it should taste tart but not too tart, salty but not too salty, and generally rounded and pleasing.
If it has not reached this stage, continue to reduce by rapid boiling to concentrate the flavour. Once you are satisfied that a suitably concentrated taste has been achieved, whisk in the knob of butter to give the sauce a light amalgamation, and remove it from the heat.
Mix the salad leaves with the lemon olive oil and sea salt. Place the salad leaves on four plates. Slice the four monkfish fillets into four thick pieces on the slant so that the slices fall together against each other pleasingly. Place each sliced fillet on top of a pile of lettuce and pour the sauce around it. Serve immediately.
* You can buy lemon-flavoured olive oil. Alternatively, pare the zest off a lemon, leave to stand in a bottle of good olive oil for 24 hours and then strain. Use as required.
ROAST EELS WITH PANCETTA AND BAY LEAVES
Alastair Little's dish of eels is influenced by his Italian experiences. He says that if you like eels, then this has to be one of the best dishes in the world. He cooks them in a hot oven, rather than on a barbecue, because this seems more achievable.
A large eel is better for the dish than two small ones. The tail section and head can be discarded, leaving you with 500-600g; approximately three steaks per person.
800g/1lb 12oz eel, skinned and cut into 12 steaks of 3cm/1in
12 thin slices smoked pancetta (or streaky bacon)
8 bay leaves, fresh if possible
coarse black pepper
good olive oil
Preheat the oven to its maximum temperature. Soak four wooden skewers in water for an hour.
Wrap each eel steak in the pancetta around the dark blue membrane, then pin the pancetta with a skewer. Add a bay leaf, then another piece of wrapped eel. There should be three eel steaks and two bay leaves on each skewer. Salt lightly and more generously scatter with coarse black pepper.
Prepare a roasting tray with a rack in it. Lay the eel kebabs on this and roast for 25 minutes. It is important that the skewers are not too tightly packed as this inhibits the cooking: the pieces should be barely touching.
You may, if you wish, brush the eels with olive oil halfway through cooking, but the eels are so fatty this is not necessary. If the bay leaves or pancetta start to scorch before the cooking time has elapsed, turn the oven down to 180C/350F/Gas 4 and loosely cover the kebabs with a sheet of aluminium foil.
Serve with boiled potatoes scattered with chopped parsley and butter.
ORANGE ROUGHY WITH TOMATO AND AVOCADO
4 x 175g/6oz fillets skinless orange roughy
salt and freshly ground black pepper
650g/1lb 8oz tomatoes, peeled and sliced
2 rounded tablespoons chopped basil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 avocados, peeled and sliced
Lay the fillets in a large, shallow, ovenproof dish and season well. Cover with the tomato slices and half the basil and pour over the vinegar and olive oil.
Cover the fish with foil and bake in a moderately hot oven, 200C/ 400F/Gas 6 for 20 minutes.
Add the avocado slices, more seasoning, re-cover and cook for a further 10 to 15 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through.
To serve, sprinkle with the remaining basil. This dish is delicious served hot or cold.
! These recipes have been taken from the following cookbooks: Taste of the Sea by Rick Stein (BBC pounds 12.99). Alastair Little's Italian Kitchen (Ebury Press pounds 19.99). World of Flavours by Willi Elsener (Pavilion pounds 19.99). The 30-minute Cook by Nigel Slater (Penguin pounds 9.99). Savouring the East by David Burton. (Faber and Faber pounds l5.99), published this month. Flavours of Mexico by Marlena Spieler (Grafton pounds 5.99). Seafood the New Zealand Way by Glynn Christian; this 16-page booklet is available free to Independent on Sunday readers who write enclosing a large, stamped addressed envelope to: PO Box 3, Northleach, Glos, GL54 3YB.
STEP-BY-STEP SUSHI: AN EASY GUIDE
Getting the knack of sushi may be complicated, but expert tips can get things rolling
IT'S RICE work if you can get it, and Mr Shigeru Mashiko has got it. He is Britain's number one sushi-maker, until now operating within the Yaohan Plaza, Colindale, north London, the largest complex of Japanese restaurants and food shops under one roof in Europe. In September, he took charge of a new factory unit dedicated to producing sushi for British supermarkets. His trays of sushi supplied to selected Waitrose stores are designed to be eaten the day they are put together.
Who'd have thought that, one day, these rice-wrapped morsels of raw fish, cucumber, and the like, would become the fashionable and sought-after snack from Hampstead to High Wycombe?
Sushi-making is regarded as a great skill and chefs are 10 years achieving maturity. Mr Mashiko was not allowed to do more than wash the rice for the first two years, while watching the master at work. Then, he graduated to working with small fish, such as cooked prawns, before being eventually let loose on sliced raw fish and, 10 years on and last of all, costly tuna.
Scrutinising a sushi roll, you wonder why it takes more than 10 minutes to master this skill. In its simplest form nigiri, meaning handmade, is a blob of vinegared rice onto which is pressed a piece of finely sliced raw or marinated salmon, tuna, squid or cooked prawn. The more sophisticated version, maki, is a section of a cylinder of cooked rice, the ingredients tucked inside. Or, it can be a pressed square of rice, similarly stuffed, then cut into segments.
What's the big deal? For the Japanese, it's the balance of glutinous, shiny rice with the filling of silky, sea-fresh raw slices of salmon, white fish, mackerel, squid, lightly cooked prawns, toned up with a slice of hot radish (daikon) and a spot of wasabi mustard, the whole thing dipped in seasoned soy sauce.
To make your own sushi, this is all you need:
The rice. The Japanese import American short-grain rice grown specially for their market. It's obtainable from Selfridges and Japanese stores. You'll need to wash it clear, leave it to soak for at least 30 minutes, then bring to the boil and simmer in a pan with a tight-fitting lid for 15 minutes (use three cups rice to three and a half cups water). Leave the rice off the heat, covered, for another 15 minutes.
The vinegar. To flavour the rice you need Japanese rice vinegar, sweet, sour and delicate. The Mitsukan range, Japan's leading brand, including a seasoned one for sushi, is available in supermarkets. Mr Mashiko makes his own secret potion.
Wasabi. A green powder-like dry mustard, made from a form of horseradish. Make it up with a few drops of cold water. From spcecialist and Asian stores.
The fish. Fresh out of the water. If it smells like fish it isn't fresh, since the freshest fish has no smell. Trim, cut into fine slices showing the grain, about 212ins by 34in (step 1). You can substitute smoked fish such as cod, halibut, salmon, haddock. Or use cooked prawns.
For sophisticated maki sushi you need a special bamboo mat, 10in square. On it you place a rectangle of processed nori seaweed (from Japanese shops - it's like sheets of paper) about 8ins by 4ins, and within the space you lay a handful of rice, slightly smaller than a tennis ball, flattening it and making an indentation across the centre (step 2). Along this you lay the raw fish, cooked prawn or other ingredients, lengths of deseeded cucumber, sliced daikon, avocado, scrambled eggs, with dabs of wasabi (step 3). Roll the mat forward (step 4), enclosing the rice into a cylinder, press firmly (step 5) and release. Slice your maki sushi into eight sections (step 6), with a saucer of Kikkoman soy sauce to dip into.
Simpler for beginners is nigiri; the Yaohan Plaza's spokeswoman, Miyuki Hazzard, who used to make her own nigiri, arranged for Mr Mashiko to show me how. Spread the hot rice on a wide plate and dribble the rice vinegar over it. Use a flat wooden paddle to mix in the vinegar with a chopping motion, not stirring. This gives the rice a glistening appearance. Ideally, your assistant should be fanning the rice now, to help cool it quickly. When the rice is cool enough to handle, mould it with your hands into little shapes the size of a table tennis ball (step 2). Dab a dot of wasabi on the underside of each slice of fish (step 3) before pressing onto a rice ball (step 4) and flattening into an oblong (step 5). Serve a selection of the sushi (step 6).
In week one of this series, the fresh fish photographed by Moggy was supplied by Steve Hatt of Islington, London N1Reuse content