Catch me if you can

Mark Hix has poured a lifetime's love of seafood into his new book, 'Fish Etc'. In the first of two exclusive extracts, he presents his favourite classic recipes
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I didn't realise it at the time, but I was lucky to grow up on the Dorset coast. The beaches are some of the most beautiful in the country. In summer we swam out to sea, competing in the annual one-mile black-buoy swimming race. And at any time of year I could pluck fish straight from the channel.

I didn't realise it at the time, but I was lucky to grow up on the Dorset coast. The beaches are some of the most beautiful in the country. In summer we swam out to sea, competing in the annual one-mile black-buoy swimming race. And at any time of year I could pluck fish straight from the channel.

To this day I can't resist the lure of the sea, the thrill of fishing and the pleasure of cooking and eating freshly caught seafood. A look at the menus at our restaurants - The Ivy, where fish cakes are one of the most popular choices, and J Sheekey, which specialises in fish, with everything from razor clams to fish pie - might give the game away.

Some children are squeamish about eating fish unless it's disguised in a coating of golden crumbs. I can't recall ever having fish fingers when I was a kid. What I do remember is eating queen scallops in the school playground, the way some kids would eat sherbet dabs. My friend Mark Hawker's dad had a trawler and he occasionally brought these queenies, as they were called, cooked with a splash of vinegar, to school in little polystyrene cups. They were the best thing. We used to get lobsters delivered to our doorstep sometimes in exchange for a favour. It wasn't a gourmet food thing, just that seafood was part of the family economy. Everyone I knew seemed to have some connection with fishing.

On chilly autumn evenings we'd catch prawns in a net. Other cold nights were spent on the beach with a Tilley lamp and no rewards. Mackerel was plentiful and sporty fishing with light tackle off the end of the pier with a float and a single hook took up many an afternoon and early evening after school. Any not fried up as soon as we got them home were soused by my gran to have with brown bread and butter as a tea-time snack for the rest of the week. Now that dish often appears on the menu at J Sheekey with a garnish of samphire, which I knew nothing about in those days. Cooking wasn't on the agenda, I just loved eating what I'd caught. Really I just liked the sea-hunter thing, and still do.

These days I still fish whenever I can (that's me, in the picture, rod out in the Caribbean this summer). Recently, sailing on the Solent on a mate's yacht in water alive with mackerel, I just couldn't resist casting a fly in among them and dissecting them for sashimi an hour or so later with some wasabi and soy. Shame we forgot the pickled ginger. I know that may sound a bit bonkers but isn't it better than mooring up and finding the local chippie?

There's a downside to a love affair with fish, though. As kids, back in West Bay in the 1970s, we had no idea what the effects of over-fishing further out to sea would be. Factory ships fished out the most popular specimens, leaving stocks of once common cod disastrously low. I would never have imagined then that I'd be writing a fish cookery book without a recipe for cod in it. (Mind you, I never imagined then I'd be writing a fish cookery book.)

I want everyone to enjoy fish as much as I do, and I'd also like to encourage fish lovers to try other species. Properly prepared, the more plentiful types of fish make a fine alternative, and I suggest using these in my recipes. Pollack with parsley sauce, for example, is a classic sauce matched with a fish that we can eat with a clear conscience. I hope my daughters Ellie and Lydia grow up to appreciate fish as much as I do. And that there'll still be plenty of fish in the sea for them.

'Fish Etc', by Mark Hix, is published by Quadrille, £18.99. Readers of 'The Independent Magazine' can order a signed copy for £16.99 plus free p&p from Independent Books Direct 08700 798897 or

Moules marinière

Serves 4

Generally you can get mussels most of the year round, although - as with oysters - when the water is warm, they get broody and will not be at their best, and certain fisheries will not harvest them in order to give them a chance to breed. If they've already been cleaned and scrubbed simply pull out the cotton-like beards then rinse in cold water. Discard any that are open and don't close when you handle them - they're probably dead.

This recipe is the simplest and quickest way to enjoy mussels, but another option is to serve them mixed with cockles and/or clams. Or you can follow this recipe using just clams, cockles and/or razor clams. You can add cream to a classic moules marinière to give them a luxurious finish, or you can imbue your mussels with flavours from around the world, as, for example, in the steamed Catalan mussels variation below or by adding Thai spices and finishing the dish with coconut milk.

I first encountered the Catalan version on the Costa Brava, near St Feliu de Guixols. Most of the restaurants in the area served a version of it and each one was slightly different in its flavourings. The best one I tried certainly had a distinct North African influence, containing ginger and cumin. I like the way that spices cross over in so many countries, especially when you are not expecting it.

4-6 large shallots, finely chopped
5-6 garlic cloves, crushed
1 glass of white wine
150ml fish stock, see fish stock recipe below (or a quarter of a good-quality fish stock cube dissolved in 150ml hot water)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2kg mussels, scrubbed and debearded, discarding any that stay open when tapped
2tbsp chopped parsley

Put the shallots, garlic, white wine and fish stock into a large saucepan. Bring to the boil, season with salt and pepper, and add the mussels and parsley. Cover with a lid and cook on a high heat, stirring occasionally, until all the mussels have opened for roughly 3-4 minutes (one or two may not, but don't keep cooking just for them; simply discard the closed ones). Serve immediately.

For the steamed Catalan mussels variation, replace the shallots with a small onion, chopped, and cook that and the garlic in 4 tablespoons olive oil with 1/2 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger and 1 teaspoon each crushed fennel seeds and ground cumin, until softened. Add a good pinch of saffron strands, a tablespoon of tomato purée, 150g canned, chopped tomatoes with their liquid, the white wine and 1 litre of stock. Simmer for 10-15 minutes and then season to taste. Add the mussels and parsley. Cover and cook as above.

Fish pie

Serves 4-6

Fish pie is honest, down-to-earth food, packed with flavours. It makes perfect comfort food if you are sitting in front of the television after a hard day, but works equally well as a dinner-party main course. You can make this dish the day before and keep it in the fridge overnight. The basic recipe can be varied endlessly, according to what fish are available and what you like, but it is always good to include some smoked fish. Other than salmon, though, it is usually best to avoid oily fish. And don't use game fish, such as swordfish or tuna. The mashed potato topping also gives lots of scope for jazzing up: you can flavour it with more cheese, some herbs or even saffron.

500ml fish stock, see fish stock recipe below (or a good-quality fish stock cube dissolved in 500ml hot water)
2tbsp dry vermouth
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 fennel bulb, cored and finely diced (optional)
250g fillets of white fish, such as pollack, skinned, any residual bones removed and fillets cut into rough 3cm chunks
175g salmon fillet, skinned, any residual bones removed and fillets cut into rough 3cm chunks
175g smoked fish fillet, skinned, any residual bones removed and fillets cut into rough 3cm chunks
150g small-to-medium peeled raw prawns (optional)
2tbsp chopped mixed green herbs, such as parsley, dill and chervil
60g butter
11/2kg potatoes, cooked and mashed with a little milk
20g fresh white breadcrumbs
20g grated Parmesan cheese

for the sauce

50g butter
50g flour
175ml double cream
2tsp Dijon mustard
1tsp anchovy essence
Salt and freshly ground white pepper

In a large saucepan, bring the fish stock and vermouth to the boil, add the onion and fennel, turn down the heat and cook gently for 8 minutes. Add the fish and prawns, and poach for 2 minutes. Drain in a colander over a bowl, reserving the cooking liquid, and leave to cool.

To make the sauce: melt the butter in a heavy-based pan over a low heat, then stir in the flour and cook gently for a minute. Gradually add the reserved fish poaching liquid, stirring well until it has all been added and the mixture is smooth. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Add the cream and continue to simmer for 10 minutes or so until the sauce has a thick consistency. Stir in the mustard and anchovy essence. Season with salt and freshly ground white pepper if necessary, then leave to cool for about 15 minutes or so.

Gently fold into the sauce the cooked fish and prawns with the fennel and onion pieces, and the herbs. Spoon into a large pie dish or several individual ones, filling to 3cm from the top. Leave to set for about 30 minutes, so that the potato will sit on the sauce.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4 and mix the butter into the mashed potato. Season with a little salt and freshly ground white pepper and add a little milk so that it is just soft enough to pipe with a piping bag or spread with a spatula on to the fish.

Bake for 30 minutes (or 20 minutes for little ones). Scatter on the breadcrumbs and cheese, and bake for 10-15 minutes until golden on top.

Grilled Dover sole with béarnaise sauce

Serves 4

Dover sole is a restaurant bestseller, perfect if you want something simple, light and clean, but expect to pay double the price of other fish. Or you could use chicken turbot, dab, flounder, lemon sole, megrim, slip sole or witch.

4 Dover soles, each about 500g, black skin removed
Flour, for dusting
Olive oil, for coating

for the béarnaise sauce

3tbsp white wine vinegar
1 small shallot, chopped
A few sprigs of tarragon
1 bay leaf
5 white peppercorns
200g unsalted butter
3 small egg yolks
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1tbsp chopped tarragon
1tbsp chopped chervil or parsley

First make the béarnaise sauce: place the vinegar, shallot, herbs and peppercorns in a saucepan with 3 tablespoons of water and reduce the liquid by boiling for a few minutes until there is no more than a dessertspoonful. Strain through a sieve and leave to cool.

In a small pan, melt the butter and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, leave to cool a little, then pour off the pure butter where it has separated from the whey. Discard the whey. Clarifying the butter like this helps to keep the sauce thick.

Put the egg yolks in a small bowl (or double boiler if you have one) with half the vinegar reduction and whisk over a pan of gently simmering water until the mix begins to thicken and become frothy. Slowly trickle in the butter, whisking continuously - a hand-held electric whisk helps. If the butter is added too quickly the sauce will separate. When you have added two-thirds of the butter, taste the sauce and add a little more, or all, of the remaining vinegar reduction. Then add the rest of the butter. The sauce should not be too vinegary, but the vinegar should just cut the butter's oiliness. Season, stir in the chopped herbs, cover with clingfilm and set aside in a warm - not hot - place.

Preheat a grill or griddle. Lightly dust the skin side of the fish in seasoned flour, pat off excess and dip both sides in olive oil on a large shallow plate. When the grill or griddle is smoking-hot, cook the fish, flesh side towards the heat first, for about 4-5 minutes, then turn and cook the other side for the same time. If using a griddle, you can give them quadrillage markings, by turning them after 2-3 minutes each time to get criss-cross searing. Whether grilling or griddling, you may have to cook in batches.

Serve the fish with the béarnaise sauce. If necessary, the sauce can be reheated over a bowl of hot water and lightly whisked again.

Fish cakes

Serves 4

Fish cakes are great for using up offcuts and cheaper types of flaky fish, such as whiting and coley. A bit of smoked haddock boosts the flavour, salmon imparts a good colour and can be used alone (add a little tomato ketchup to the mix for a good colour), and a few dashes of anchovy essence make for a good additional seasoning.

There are lots of ways of varying the basic mix: you can use all smoked fish for a fine strong flavour; make Bajun fish cakes by using salt fish and chopped chilli, and breadcrumbing them. Or make Thai fish cakes by using minced raw fish, omitting the potato and adding chopped chilli and galangal, chopped inner leaves of lemongrass and Thai fish sauce. You can also make mini versions of any of these types of fish cake to serve with drinks.

325g skinless fillets of white fish, any residual bones removed
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
325g potato, peeled, cooked and mashed (but without added milk or butter)
1/2tbsp anchovy essence
1/2tbsp English mustard
2tbsp chopped dill
Flour, for dusting
Vegetable oil, for frying
Parsley sauce (see fillet of pollack with parsley sauce recipe below)

Poach the fish gently in salted water for 3-4 minutes (or fish stock if you want to use it to make a sauce), drain, allow to cool and then flake the flesh. Mix together the potato, half the fish, the anchovy essence, mustard, dill and salt and pepper until well amalgamated, then gently fold in the remaining fish. Mould the mixture into four large round cakes about 3cm thick or 8 smaller ones and refrigerate for about an hour.

Lightly flour the chilled fishcakes, shaking off any excess, and fry them in the vegetable oil for about 3-4 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Serve the fish cakes with the parsley sauce.

Spaghetti alle vongole

Serves 4

In Italy, exact recipes for spaghetti alle vongole vary from region to region and even from restaurant to restaurant. Some will add chilli, dried or fresh, and occasionally you will see tomatoes added, although I prefer the purist version with no tomatoes and just a hint of dried chilli.

The clams used vary too and can be quite expensive. Always try to use smaller ones that cook quickly and stay tender. Carpetshell clams (palourdes in France and vongole in Italy) are classic here, but my favourites are English surf clams, which are small and oval-shaped, and are gathered in the surf, which naturally helps to clean out any grit that sometimes remains in the shell. You could also use cockles, mussels or razor clams in this dish or, for a last-minute storecupboard treat, canned clams work really well. Look for the Italian brands actually sold as vongole. Drain and rinse well, then just add them to the softened aromatics and warm through gently.

350-400g dried spaghetti
5tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, crushed
2 large shallots, finely chopped
1/2tsp dried red chilli
800g small clams rinsed well in cold running water
2tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
3tbsp dry white wine
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
50g unsalted butter

Cook the spaghetti in boiling salted water until tender but still firm to the bite, then drain.

While the spaghetti is cooking, heat the olive oil in a pan large enough to hold the clams and gently cook the garlic, shallots and chilli for 2-3 minutes until soft. Add the clams with the parsley and white wine, season with salt and pepper, turn up the heat, cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook for 4-5 minutes, giving the occasional stir, until all the clams have opened (one or two may not, so don't keep cooking just for them once most have opened).

Add the butter and the drained spaghetti to the pan, stir well over a low heat for a minute and serve immediately.

Fillet of pollack with parsley sauce

Serves 4

With cod stocks depleting, I've found pollack to be a quality eating fish. Big ones are far superior to smaller ones, and have large-flaked flesh. Look out for thick fillets and be surprised by the flavour and texture. Or you could use other firm white fish such as saithe and turbot.

4 thick pollack loin portions, boned and skinned, each about 160-175g
A good knob of butter

for the parsley sauce

A good knob of butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 tbsp white wine
150ml fish stock, see fish stock recipe below (or a quarter of a good-quality fish stock cube dissolved in 150ml hot water)
400ml double cream
2tbsp chopped parsley
Sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

Melt the butter in a heavy-based pan and cook the shallots over a low heat for about 1 minute, until soft. Add the wine and stock, and simmer until reduced to about a tablespoon. Add the cream and simmer until reduced at least by half and the sauce is thick. Add the parsley and simmer for a minute or so to infuse. Season.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Season the fillets with salt and freshly ground white pepper, and put them in an ovenproof dish. Rub with butter and bake for 10-15 minutes. Remove and drain on kitchen paper, then serve with the sauce spooned over them and with steamed spinach.

Fish stock

2kg white fish bones and trimmings
2 leeks, rinsed well and coarsely chopped
2 onions, coarsely chopped
Half a head of celery, coarsely chopped
Half a lemon
1tsp fennel seeds
20 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
A few thyme sprigs
Handful of parsley

Put all the ingredients into a large pan, cover with about 1.5litres of cold water and bring to the boil. Skim well and simmer gently for 20 minutes, skimming from time to time. Strain and season to taste (be careful with the salt as you might be reducing it down in a later recipe).


* The Marine Conservation Society ( directs us towards the most sustainable seafoods. Clams, mussels, oysters, Dover sole, mackerel, red mullet, spider crab and pollock are all fine.

* The Marine Stewardship Council ( promotes sustainable species and endorses fisheries which abide by the rules, helping to maintain fish stocks.

* I prefer to eat fish on the bone as the flesh stays more moist and the flavour is fuller.

* Unless you're buying fish straight off the boat, I'd recommend using it the same day.

* Don't leave fish uncovered or it will dry out. Wrap fillets in clingfilm or keep whole fish in a sealed bag in the fridge.

* If the fishmonger has filleted it, there's no need to wash it, as you lose valuable juices. If it's whole, give it a quick rinse under cold running water and dry on kitchen paper.

* If you have to freeze fresh fish, don't leave it in the freezer for more than two months.

* If you're filleting fish, remove scales first, but it's a messy job; scrape with an old knife against the direction the scales lie. Cut off fins and tails and keep for stock or soup.

* Uncooked shellfish should be alive and kicking or frozen when you buy it. Only langoustines are better brought pre-cooked.

* Try to buy mussels in autumn and winter when they're at their best.