Food & Drink: For the love of fish

Starting today we publish the first of three exclusive extracts from 'Fish', the definitive guide to seafood in the Nineties, by Sophie Grigson and her husband William Black
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AT ABOUT the time that Sophie was developing a passion for earrings, I was beginning to develop one for fish. During the summer of 1979, I worked on an Irish oyster farm: easy, enjoyable work, made easier by a ready supply of succulent oysters and Murphy's stout. When I started I was a complete fish dunce; indeed I had been the one member of my family who resolutely refused to eat fish.

My job was to sell the oysters in London, so off I set, giving samples here and there, gradually building up a network of chefs and merchants to supply. We built a storage tank to keep the oysters fresh, and soon started bringing salmon, the odd turbot, lobsters and huge creaking crawfish in, which pleased the chefs enormously, for fish, in those days, was treated with a remarkable lack of interest by the few London merchants who supplied it.

One particular chef, Pierre Koffmann, who had opened his restaurant in Chelsea, La Tante Claire, a few years earlier, not only began to teach me the basics of buying fish but even cooked little bits of this and that when he saw me drooling over some of the dishes he created. Pierre is a very special sort of chef, multi-starred and immensely talented but still to be found, day in, day out, working in the kitchen rather than in a TV studio. He has a brilliant sense of taste. He once cooked a dish for my birthday that brought together two of my favourite fish - turbot and sea urchins - and created a meal so memorable that the look, taste and even the texture vividly come to mind more than 10 years later. I learned more about cooking by watching him than from anyone else until I met Sophie. Critically, I learned even more about produce, for the key to all successful cooking lies, as I quickly discovered, in the quality of the ingredients, never more so than when working with fish. Fish a is fine but fragile food, an extremely good source of digestible protein, but it must be eaten extremely fresh. Tired old fish, sad eyed and smelly, will never taste good however you cook it.

Eating fish is good for you, a fact which is in the realm of science rather than opinion. People who eat a lot of fish do tend to live longer. The Japanese, among the world's greatest fish eaters, have one of the lowest death rates from heart disease. Interestingly, this is now beginning to rise as the younger generation eats more meat. Ideally, we should all eat fish at least twice a week, particularly fish such as mackerel or herring, which are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.

So here is a food that is easy and quick to cook, which should surely appeal to everyone. And it does, in principle, but there's still a touch of reticence and ignorance out there. What we are aiming to do is de-mystify fish, make it accessible, and maybe tempt you into being experimental. For things have changed recently. Fish are now flown in from many obscure parts of the world to keep the markets full and fairly happy throughout the year.

Sophie's mother, the late and great Jane Grigson, wrote a now classic work in the Seventies, which in later versions was called The Fish Book. Although, sadly, I never met Jane, I hope she would approve of what we are trying to do. Our intention is to produce a book, Fish, from which the following extracts are taken, to complement, rather than replace, her wonderful, erudite work. In combining my buying knowledge with Sophie's practical, approachable recipes, we hope that we have crafted a book that will serve for years to come.


You don't need any great skill when buying fish - just common sense. Ideally, fish should be eaten within two or three days of being caught. Be an utterly ruthless buyer. Ask your shop, or fish counter at the supermarket, to tell you when the fish gets delivered, and then make sure you buy that day. Try not to store it for more than 24 hours at home; it's always better to eat it on the day you buy it.


Look a fish straight in the eye and if its eyes are bright and clear, this could be the fish to go for. In time, you will need to do little else, since experience will give you a sixth sense. But to support your choice, check the gills (they should be bright red, not brown) and the colours on the skin, which should be bright and look natural. The slime that covers fish in water becomes opaque when old and stale, so only buy if the slime is clear. If you're buying a gutted fish, make sure that the gut cavity is clean and dry. A fresh fish should feel hard to the touch and your finger shouldn't leave a mark when you press it into the flesh.

Fresh fish don't necessarily smell of ocean breezes and seaweed. They often have a characteristic smell but what amazes many people is how un-"fishy" it can be. The fishy smell comes from decomposition, and the art of buying is to outmanoeuvre the action of bacteria and enzymes.

Shellfish should be alive when bought, the exception being scallops, which are often sold out of the shell. Oysters, clams and mussels should be tightly closed and feel heavy and full. Tap the shell and if they sound hollow don't use them. If you touch them they should shut tightly. Lobsters and crabs are sold alive or freshly cooked. Only buy a cooked crustacean from a regular, trustworthy supplier - a lobster with a floppy tail may have been cooked when dead and should be avoided. Live crustaceans should react vigorously to being picked up.


An island surrounded by some of the richest fisheries in the world, blessed with sophisticated roads and railways, should be the ideal place to buy fish. Wrong. Great Britain Inc is hopelessly served by fish shops and I am not altogether sure why. It's to super- markets that many of us turn, not always happily, for fish.

Supermarkets have to buy in huge quantity and purchases are centralised, computerised and somewhat remote. They appear to be trying hard to create a fishmonger's counter that appeals and the quality can, let it be said, be excellent. The problem I have had with them is that staff do not always appear to be specifically trained to deal with fish, and therefore cannot match the service provided by a fishmonger.

For those of you with a good local fishmonger the situation may be easier, for it's likely that he/she will have a wealth of knowledge and experience to guide you, and a fishmonger can be more flexible about supplies. But times are hard. The prices offered by supermarkets constantly undercut them, so the only way fishmongers can survive is to sell a top-quality product and service.

I would love to see street markets take off in this country with stalls of glistening fish and sweet-smelling oysters but, sadly, we are far away from this fishy paradise. Fish markets exist on several levels. Wholesale markets supply fish shops and market stalls, and are mostly found away from city centres. They are supplied by coastal fish markets. Some will let you wander in, but do try to let everyone get on with the business in hand.


Fish are cold blooded and their metabolism functions at a lower temperature than that of warm-blooded animals. Their enzymes also function at a lower temperature, so care must be paid to keeping fish cool; if you don't you will unleash awesome forces.

As the fish ages, an amino acid called trimethylalamine, widely found in sea fish, degrades under the influence of lactic acid, which gives that nasty smell so many (wrongly) attribute to fresh fish. As well as this, we have to watch out for bacteria, which can also lead to the degradation of amino acids. Cleanliness is not only next to godliness it is also good practice when dealing with any food. Cross-contamination, dirty knives, hands and work surfaces are good news for bacteria, which will happily jump from meat to fish with, at times, dire, even fatal, consequences. Bacteria exist in gut cavities of fish, in ice, in fridges and on other foods, so great care and attention must be paid at all times to hygiene. Bacteria multiply rapidly in the warm, so keep the fish well iced and cool at all times.

If storing a whole fish, try and keep it on the bone, but if they are gutted and gilled, they keep better. If you can't arrange the gilling, go for the gutting. Check the inside of the gut cavity is clean and dry. Wash it under cold water, and pat dry with kitchen towel before putting it in the fridge. Fish should be kept under clingfilm, or a clean damp cloth which should be changed every 24 hours. Do not keep fish for more than 48 hours in a domestic fridge. If it is on a dish or plate, make sure it isn't lying in a pool of water, which will be rich in bacteria.


n 150-175g/5-6oz fillet for a main course

n 85-110g/3-4oz fillet for a starter

n 500g/1lb 2oz gross for shellfish

n 500g/1lb 2oz gross for large crustaceans

n 300g/11oz for small crustaceans such as prawns or shrimps

n 30-60g/1-2oz caviare

n 110g/4oz unsoaked salt cod


The one simple rule to remember is don't overcook it. If you're stewing shad or tuna, where long cooking is called for, then that's fine, but otherwise be snappy and precise. If you have bought fish as fresh as it should be, then it should be good enough to eat raw, so it won't matter too much if it is a little on the underdone side.

Before you enter the wonderful world of Sophie's recipes, you might like to familiarise yourself with the taste and texture of fish in its purest state. Try cooking different varieties with nothing more than a dribble of oil, some salt, pepper and maybe a squeeze of lemon. Buy yourself a non-stick oval fish pan; they're invaluable.

And now over to Sophie. First of all, some general cooking notes: stick with one set of measurements, either metric or Imperial. All spoon measurements are rounded and eggs are large unless otherwise stated. Herbs are fresh and spices are whole unless otherwise stated. Pepper should be freshly ground, as should nutmeg. I use extra virgin olive oil for cooking. If you prefer a less powerful oil, then use it by all means, except where I have specifically called for extra virgin in a recipe.

Cooking times are meant as guidelines, not absolutes: all stoves vary. Use your eyes and senses of smell and taste to judge when food is done.

Here's one tip that will improve nearly all fish, however you cook it. A good half an hour before it is to go into the pan, lay it on a plate and season with salt. This pre-salting magically improves texture and boosts flavour. I imagine it works by drawing out some of the water lodged in the flesh but, whatever the reason, it's very effective. And another small note, too: try to remember to take your fish, particularly whole fish, out of the fridge half an hour before cooking - unless the day is spectacularly hot - so that it comes back to room temperature before heading into the pan. Fish that is too cold will not cook evenly.


These are two of the very best ways of cooking fish, producing crisp, browned skin. Since very little oil is used, it is also low in calories. These methods are most suitable for thicker fillets, with skin on, though smaller whole fish (such as red mullet) can also be seared and griddled. The main difference between the two methods is the pan.

To sear fish you will need a good frying pan with a heavy base. An oval one is ideal as you will be able to fit more fish in it. Wipe the pan with a little oil, but don't leave puddles of it. Place over a high heat and leave until horribly hot. Brush the fish with oil and lay it on the pan (if it is a fillet, then skin-side down first). Leave for two to three minutes, then turn over and complete cooking on the other side. Alternatively, you can finish cooking in a very hot oven in a few minutes, which may make sense for very thick fillets or whole fish.

The cooked fish will have a superb, slightly smoky flavour. Excellent served with little more than a wedge of lemon - also eminently suitable for salsas and mayonnaise-based sauces. To griddle, use the same method with a ridged, cast-iron griddle pan.


Alternatives: cod, sea bass

A rare treat, though now that you can buy wild mushrooms from supermarkets, not as rare as it might have been. If you haven't got any reduced stock, use straight fish stock (you'll need twice as much) but you'll have to allow extra time for it to boil right down to a sticky, syrupy glaze, so start the sauce before cooking the fish.

Serves 2

2 x 175g/6oz pieces of skinned turbot fillet


For the sauce:

30g/1oz butter

12 tablespoon sunflower oil

1 shallot, very finely chopped

110g/4oz small wild mushrooms (eg baby ceps, chanterelles, cut in half or sliced if on the large side)

150ml/14 pint reduced fish stock

1 tablespoon chopped fresh chervil

Wipe a heavy-based pan lightly with oil and then put it over a high heat. When it is intensely hot, brush one side of each turbot fillet with a little more oil and lay it in the pan. Leave for three minutes before turning. Then reduce the heat and cook for a further one to two minutes, until just cooked through. Keep the fish warm.

In a separate pan, make the sauce. Heat half the butter with the oil. Fry the shallot gently until tender, then raise the heat and put in the mushrooms. Cook over a good heat, stirring, until they are cooked through. Add the reduced fish stock, chervil, salt and pepper and bring to the boil. Simmer for one to three minutes until syrupy, then reduce the heat slightly and whisk in the last of the butter, cut into small pieces, to thicken. Taste, adjust seasoning and spoon the sauce over the turbot. Devour immediately.


Always use a good-quality fat - extra virgin olive oil, or sunflower or groundnut oil are all good for shallow-frying. Butter is lovely but has a mean tendency to burn. Unsalted butter is a little safer, but better still is clarified butter. If you don't have any handy, then compromise by using equal quantities of butter and oil, which will raise the burning point a little, usually enough to cook most fish. With oil, just make sure that it is good and hot so that the fish browns before it overcooks. Never overcrowd the pan or you will lower the temperature. When frying whole fish, lower the heat a little once the fish is beginning to brown so heat can penetrate without burning. As with searing and grilling, one of the keys to successful frying is to staunch the temptation to move the fish around in the pan. Leave it alone. Flouring the fish is not necessary but does give a lovely finish.


Alternatives: John Dory, cod, any flat fish

Cut into thin slices. Monkfish takes well to flash-frying over a beltingly high heat. If the temperature is ferocious enough, the liquid emerging will evaporate as it hits the pan, leaving moist, tender sippets of fish.

Serves 4-6

900g-1.35kg/2-3lb monkfish tail, filleted

olive oil, for frying

For the salsa verde:

bunch of fresh parsley

handful of fresh basil leaves

4 tinned anchovy fillet

2 tablespoons capers, rinsed, or soaked, if salted

2 garlic cloves, chopped

45g/112oz pitted green olives, roughly chopped

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

slice of white bread, crusts removed, torn into pieces

150ml-250ml/5-9fl oz extra virgin olive oil

For the salsa verde, slash the leaves from the bunch of parsley. Put them in a food processor with all the other ingredients except the olive oil and seasoning. Process in short bursts, scraping the sides, until finely chopped. Keep the blades whirring as you trickle in enough olive oil to give a thickish sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Slice the monkfish across the grain into pieces about 5mm (14in) thick. Just before you eat, season and fry the monkfish slices briskly in olive oil over a high heat. Drain briefly on kitchen paper and serve with the salsa verde.


I usually use a wok for deep-frying. With its sloping sides, it's economical on oil, and it conducts heat well. For most fish dishes, the oil will need to be extremely hot, around 350-375F/180-190C. The easy way to test is to drop a piece of bread into the oil. It should fizz vigorously and brown within about 30 seconds. Oil that is not hot enough will give greasy results.

There must be some sort of barrier between the fish and oil in order to protect the fish and stop moisture escaping. This may be as light as a coating of flour or something more substantial, such as a batter. Either way, it should coat the fish completely. Slide the fish carefully into the hot oil so that it doesn't splash. When cooked, drain the fish on kitchen paper, sprinkle with salt and serve immediately with lemon wedges.


There's really only one thing to do with whitebait and that is to deep- fry them and serve piping hot and crisp, straight from the pan. The only embellishment is a shake of cayenne in the flour coating. Hey presto, devilled whitebait!

I like a noticeable heat (I can't imagine the Devil would have it any other way), so use a full teaspoon of cayenne. For a more subtle version - purgatory, perhaps - stick with half.

Serves 4

sunflower or vegetable oil, for deep-frying

60g/2oz plain flour

12-1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon salt

500g/1lb 2oz whitebait

lemon wedges and brown bread and butter to serve

Put a pan or wok of oil on to heat. Sift the flour with the cayenne and salt into a large bowl. Put the whitebait into a sieve and rinse with cold water. Shake off the excess and then tip the whitebait into the bowl of flour. Toss in the flour until evenly coated, then tip into a dry sieve and shake off excess flour.

The oil should be extremely hot - about 375F/190C. Deep-fry a generous handful of fish at a time. Stir and separate any that stick together (I find a pair of chopsticks very handy for this). Fry until perfectly crisp and golden, about three minutes. Scoop out and drain on kitchen paper. Pass around the cooked ones while the next batch is cooking.

Serve piping hot, with the lemon wedges and slices of brown bread.


A gentle, fish-friendly method. For some time, it was considered suitable only for invalids, with the implication that the fish would turn out miserably bland but very digestible. Digestible maybe, but it doesn't have to be bland.

Ideally, you should use a purpose-made steamer, or a wok with bamboo- steaming baskets and lid. If desperate, you can rig up a makeshift steamer out of a saucepan, a sieve and some foil.

Pour about 5cm (2in) of water into the lower part of the steamer and bring to a simmer. Either line the steamer basket with foil, leaving a gap around the edge so that steam can circulate, or find a plate that fits comfortably, again allowing the steam to circulate. Make a bed of aromatics, if you wish, and lay the fish on top. Lower the fish into the steamer, checking that the water does not bubble up over on to the fish. Lay a folded tea towel over the top of the basket (not in contact with the fish). This is not mandatory but it does absorb some of the condensation that might otherwise drip down on to the fish.


Alternatives: sea bream, snappers, emperors, grouper, turbot, grey mullet

If you've eaten this in a Chinese restaurant, you'll know how very glamorous it is: a whole silvery sea bass, sizzling under its scattering of green spring onion and threads of red chilli. The moist, flesh tastes superb. If you have a steamer that will take a whole sea bass, this is easy to prepare at home; a spectacular way to begin a dinner party.

Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a starter

1 sea bass, weighing about 1-1.5kg/2lb 4oz-3lb 4oz, cleaned and scaled, head on

2cm/1in piece of fresh ginger, cut into matchsticks

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 fresh chilli (mild-medium), cut into fine threads

4 spring onions, cut into fine threads

2 tablespoons sesame oil

2 tablespoons sunflower or vegetable oil

2 tablespoons soy sauce

small handful of roughly chopped fresh coriander

Trim the dorsal and side fins off the fish. Season the stomach cavity lightly. Make three diagonal slashes across each side of the sea bass so that it cooks more evenly. Find a heatproof plate that will fit into your steamer, allowing a little room around the edges so steam can circulate. If the fish is too big to curl up on the plate, cut it in half so it will fit.

Place the steamer over a pan of boiling water and put the plated fish in the basket. Cover the basket with a cloth and then put the lid of the steamer firmly on top of that. Steam for about eight to 12 minutes, until the fish is just cooked through but no more. If you have to transfer the fish to a more glamorous serving dish, do it quickly. Sprinkle the ginger, garlic, chilli and spring onions on top. Put the two oils into a saucepan and heat until smoke rises, then pour over fish and flavourings. Drizzle on soy sauce, scatter with coriander and rush to the table.



With meat, braising means long slow cooking, but braising fish is rather different - a short spell in a heavy pan, the fish laid on a bed of vegetables and flavourings, with a little liquid, lid on. You can braise fish over a gentle heat on the top of the stove or at a moderate heat in the oven. Do not let it overcook.

When making stews or soups that include fish and shellfish, usually you should prepare the sauce/soup base in advance, the sea-food only needs to be added at the end of the process and stewed for the bare minimum.


This stew can make the centrepiece of a casual lunch, served with warm, crusty bread and a green salad, or star in a more formal setting, served with noodles, rice or boiled new potatoes and a green vegetable. Last time we cooked this, we made the stew with cod, snapper and swordfish, but it is a good vehicle for almost any fish.

Serves 6

1kg/2lb 4oz mixed fish fillets, cut into pieces about 2.5cm/1in across and 4cm/112in long

good pinch of saffron strands (optional)

1 white or red onion, chopped

2 celery sticks, thinly sliced

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves, chopped

1 tablespoon coriander seeds, roughly crushed

1 teaspoon cumin seeds or 12 teaspoon ground cumin

2 bayleaves

1 sizeable fresh thyme sprig

2 x 400g/14oz tins of chopped tomatoes

2 heaped tablespoons tomato puree

1 glass (110ml/4fl oz) red wine (optional)

300ml/12 pint fish stock or water

1-2 tablespoons sugar (optional)

Season the fish and set aside. Put saffron into a small bowl, if using, and add a tablespoon of hot water. Leave to infuse. Fry onion and celery in olive oil over a moderate heat, letting them colour here and there. When they are almost done, add garlic, coriander, cumin, bayleaves and thyme. Cook for two minutes. Stir in tomatoes and tomato puree, leave to boil down until very thick - about 10 minutes - stirring occasionally. Now add wine, if using, bring to the boil and cook for a minute or so, then add the stock or water. Season. Simmer for five minutes and taste. If it is rather sharp tasting, which it probably will be, add sugar, to soften. Simmer for another five to 10 minutes. The stew can be prepared to this stage in advance. If you do this, re-heat it thoroughly, about 10 minutes before you wish to serve it. Add the fish, together with the saffron, give it a quick stir, then let it simmer gently for about five minutes. Draw off the heat, taste and adjust seasonings, then serve.


A truly excellent way of cooking fish, most suitable for chunky steaks from larger fish (tuna and monkfish, for instance, grill very well) and smaller whole fish, such as red mullet, sardines and the like. An hour or more in a marinade before cooking is always a boon.

Make sure that the grill is thoroughly preheated - give it at least five minutes to heat up. With a barbecue, allow plenty of time for flames to die down, so that coals are at the peak of their searing power. Brush both the grill rack and fish with oil to prevent sticking. Grill the fish close to the heat so it browns on the exterior without overcooking in the interior. Turn it once. Too much handling and turning is likely to end in disaster.


Alternatives: bass, sea bream, emperor, snapper, grey mullet

A vinaigrette, softened with the sweetness of raw summer tomatoes and gently warmed through, makes a delicious dressing for grilled red mullet. Better still, try it with mullet that have been barbecued to a smoky turn.

Serves 4

4 medium red mullet, weighing 175-200g/ 6-7oz each, cleaned and scaled

juice of 12 lemon

olive oil

For the vinaigrette:

3 tomatoes, peeled, de-seeded and chopped

1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon, basil or chives

1 shallot or 12 small onion, very finely chopped

85ml/3fl oz olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Snip the fins off the red mullet and make two diagonal slashes across the thickest part of the body of each fish on each side. Season inside and out with salt, pepper and the lemon juice. Leave for at least half an hour before cooking.

Preheat the grill thoroughly. Dry the fish on kitchen paper. Brush the grill rack and fish with olive oil, then lay the fish on the grill rack and season generously with salt and pepper. Grill for about four to six minutes on each side. Check to make sure that they are cooked through to the bone.

Mix the vinaigrette ingredients in a small pan and heat gently. The dressing should be warm, not hot. Serve the hot fish with the warm dressing.


Roasting, uncovered, in the heat of the oven is a good way to cook larger chunks of fish (perhaps a joint of swordfish) or bigger whole fish (eg a whole monkfish tail). The fish will need some sort of lubrication (usually oil, preferably olive) to offer a little protection and may well ben-efit from being cooked on a bed of vegetables moistened with, say, a splash of white wine. Fish should always be roasted at a relatively high temperature, so that it has a chance to take some colour on the outside before it is done.

What generally distinguishes baking from roasting, at least in the case of fish, is that the dish, or the fish itself is covered in some way. This makes it a method which is convenient too, for cooking thinner fish, smaller fish or fillets.


Alternatives: bass, grey mullet, snappers, emperors

Besugo al horno deservedly takes pride of place in Spain when it is served on Christmas Eve, forming an essential part of what is, for Spaniards, the major feast of the whole festivities. And what a star it is, too. The potatoes are garlicky and enriched with olive oil and the juices of the bream, while the fish itself sits proudly atop them in full glory. If you only ever cook bream once, this is the way to do it.

Serves 6

1 royal sea bream, or red snapper or emperor, weighing about 1.8-2kg/4-4lb 4oz

juice of 1 lemon

1kg/2lb 4oz potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced

1 large onion, thinly sliced

4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

pinch of saffron strands (optional)

5 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh parsley

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 tablespoons water

fresh parsley and curls of lemon zest to serve

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C/Gas 5. Make a couple of deep slashes on either side of the bream, across the thickest part, so that it cooks evenly. Season inside and out with salt and pepper, then squeeze over the lemon juice and rub it in well, again inside and out. Set aside.

Arrange the potatoes and onion in layers in a greased ovenproof dish, large enough to take the bream as well, eventually. (I use a shallow rectangular dish about 34cm by 23cm, (1312x9in).) Put the garlic, saffron, parsley and a teaspoon of salt into a mortar. Pound to a paste. Gradually work in four tablespoons of the olive oil and then the water. Give it a final stir and spoon over the potatoes and onion. Bake in the oven for 40 minutes, until the potato and onion are almost cooked.

Lay the bream on top and spoon over the remaining olive oil. Return to the oven and bake for another 25 minutes or so, until the bream is just cooked through. Tuck in a few decorative sprigs of parsley, scatter with strips of lemon zest and serve.


The second of our three extracts from Sophie Grigson and William Black's Fish features inspiring recipes for various seafood including brill, zander, lemon sole and hoki