Out of the blue: Mark Hix's simple, delicious fish and shellfish soups and starters

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

Fish is an integral part of our diets, but there's a lot of confusion surrounding the question about which species we should or shouldn't be eating. Good-quality fishmongers will always have information about which fish are suitable to eat, but that may not be the case if you're buying from a supermarket fish counter, where knowledgeable labour is limited. On the whole, I firmly believe we could and should be more experimental with our fish buying, as there are so many delicious lesser-known varieties of fish waiting to be explored – the problem is so often in the name: if you haven't heard of it, you're less likely to buy it.

A good restaurant should be able to convince you to push the boat out with your choices, and a menu featuring the standard cod, sea bass and brill can be a bit dull; a few maverick varieties in among them all makes all the difference. I try to feature a good spread of fish varieties on my menus. In Dorset, at the Hix Oyster and Fish House in Lyme Regis, we sell a lot of ling, which is a distant relative of the cod family with a long eel-like body. The flesh is firm, almost turbot-like and it cooks up really well. In France, you will see it filleted on fishmongers' slabs, labelled as julienne.

Fortunately, responsible fish farming is improving – with more and more varieties being farmed around the world – which really helps the wild fish cause.

Deep fried sprats with wild garlic aioli

Serves 4

When the sprats come in it always reminds me of my childhood, when I used to watch my late father Ernie on the beach in Dorset with all his mates out with their small rowing boats and seine nets, waiting for the water to start "boiling" as the sprats came in to shore. In fact, the sprats often just drove themselves right up on to the beach. It was an annual ritual for the locals to earn a bit of extra cash so they could have a good night out on the town.

Sprats come from the herring family and are the poor cousins of whitebait. They're about 6-7cm long and generally need simple cooking, such as coating in milk and flour and deep-frying. You can leave the heads on or, if they're bigger, cut them off, run your finger down their stomachs and open them into butterfly shapes.

A good fishmonger should be able to order them for you in advance if he hasn't got any in stock.

600-800g sprats, prepared as above, depending on their size
A cup of milk
100g self-raising flour
Salt and cayenne pepper
Oil for deep frying

For the sauce

A handful of wild garlic leaves
tbsp olive or rapeseed oil
3-4tbsp of good quality mayonnaise

To make the sauce, heat the oil in a pan, add the wild garlic leaves and stir for about 20 seconds until they are wilted. Blend coarsely in a liquidiser (you may need to add a little water to get it blended), then mix with the mayonnaise.

Pre-heat about 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep-fat fryer. Season the flour well with the salt and cayenne pepper, then coat the sprats well in the flour, shaking off any excess. Put them briefly in the milk then back through the flour.

Deep fry them in 2 or 3 batches for about 3-4 minutes, or until golden and drain on kitchen paper. Serve with the garlic mayonnaise.

Mussel and sprouting broccoli risotto

Serves 4

I like to treat purple sprouting broccoli in the same way as I would asparagus; it really does deserve to be used in so many more ways than just as a vegetable accompaniment. It's much more interesting and has loads more flavour than those big green heads of broccoli.

1kg mussels, cleaned and de-bearded
120ml white wine
200-300g small stems of sprouting broccoli
30g butter
200g carnaroli rice
750ml-1litre hot fish stock
80g unsalted butter
1tbsp double cream

Put the mussels in a large pan with the white wine, cover with a lid and cook on a high heat, stirring them every so often, for 2-3 minutes until the shells open, then drain in a colander over a bowl reserving the cooking liquid.

Cook the sprouting broccoli in boiling salted water for 3-6 minutes until tender, then drain in a colander and refresh under the cold tap so it doesn't continue cooking. Trim the leaves and flowering heads and thinly slice the tender stems.

Remove most of the mussels from the shells, leaving about 20 in the shells to add at the end. Strain the mussel cooking liquid through a fine strainer into the hot fish stock.

To make the risotto: take a thick-bottomed pan, melt the butter in it and add the rice. Stir with a wooden spoon for a minute or so on a low heat. Gradually add the hot stock a little at a time, stirring constantly and ensuring that each addition of liquid has been fully absorbed by the rice before adding the next. Season with a little salt and pepper during cooking. The risotto should be of a moist consistency, and not too stodgy. When the rice is almost cooked, add the mussels, broccoli, butter and cream. Stir well, cook for another minute or so, then check the consistency and add more seasoning and stock if necessary. Serve immediately.

Baked clams with lemon and parsley

Serves 4

Garlic, parsley and clams are a classic combination and this dish makes a great sharing starter or part of a selection of starters. Ideally you want to find large clams for this but not the massive ones, like cherrystones or quahogs,as they are really for eating raw and can be a bit tough. You could even use very large cockles or razor clams or a mixture of both.

2kg large clams, scrubbed
4 large shallots, peeled, halved and finely chopped
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
100g butter
100g fresh white breadcrumbs
Grated zest of one lemon
3-4tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the clams in a large saucepan with a cup full of water, cover with a lid and cook on a high heat, stirring them every so often, until they are all just open. Depending on the thickness of the shell this could take anything from 3-6 minutes; drain in a colander.

Pre-heat the oven to 220C/gas mark 7.

Meanwhile gently cook the shallots and garlic in the butter for a couple of minutes, stirring every so often. Put the shallot and garlic mixture in a food processor with the breadcrumbs, lemon zest and parsley and season. Blend briefly so that all of the ingredients are well but loosely mixed.

Remove one half of the clam shell from each clam and lay the clams on a flat tray. Spoon the breadcrumb mixture into each clam shell then cook in the oven for about 10-12 minutes or until the breadcrumbs are golden. Serve immediately.

Squid stuffed with black pudding

Serves 4

This may sound like an odd combo, but squid lends itself to pork products well, as it has a meaty texture without having an overwhelmingly fishy flavour. It's best to use small squid for this starter. It's not necessary to remove the skin and wings from the squid, as they're all edible and add some character to what would otherwise look like a rather uninteresting squid tube.

4 small squid weighing about 100g each
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
A couple of good knobs of butter
4 large-ish new potatoes, peeled and cooked
100-120g good quality black pudding, chopped into small pieces
1tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A handful of small salad leaves
The juice of half a lemon
2-3tbsp olive oil

Gently cook the onion and garlic in the butter for 2-3 minutes until soft then remove from the heat and leave to cool. Chop up the potatoes and mix with the onion mixture, black pudding and parsley and season to taste. Chop the tentacles off the squid just above the eyes then remove the innards and the plastic-like spine. Wash the squid and tentacles leaving the skin and wings intact as much as possible then dry on some kitchen paper. Spoon the stuffing into the squid, but not too tightly as the squid shrinks a little during cooking. Push the tentacles into the opening and secure with a cocktail stick.

Pre-heat the oven to 220/gas mark 7. Season the squid, heat a little olive oil in a pan and fry the squid on a high heat for a couple of minutes on each side; finish in the oven for about 5 minutes. Remove the squid from the pan, add lemon juice and the rest of the olive oil; mix well. Arrange the salad leaves on a plate, place the squid on top; spoon the lemon juice and oil over.

Scallop broth with Cornish earlies

Serves 4

Cornish early potatoes just about pip the Jersey Royals to the post when it comes to new season potatoes. They are both very different from each other but their appearance is a sure sign that spring is almost with us. This soup uses all the bits of scallop that normally end up in the bin; scallop is an expensive shellfish and there should be very little waste. The skirt surrounding the eye of meat gives the base of the soup a great flavour.

4 large scallops, cleaned and skirt (frills) removed, reserved
1 small leek, roughly chopped and washed
A couple of good knobs of butter
300-400g Cornish earlies or new potatoes, cleaned and peeled
1 litre fish stock
2tbsp chopped parsley
2tbsp double cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Wash the skirts of the scallops well under running cold water until there is no grit. Meanwhile gently cook the leeks in the butter for 2-3 minutes, stirring every so often, without colouring.

Roughly chop half of the potatoes and add to the pan with the scallop skirts and stock. Bring to the boil, season and simmer gently for 20 minutes then blend in a liquidiser until smooth then strain through a fine-meshed sieve and return to a clean pan.

Cut the remaining potatoes into 1cm chunks; add to the soup and simmer for 10 minutes or until they are cooked. Cut the scallop meat and roes into similar-sized pieces and add to the soup with the parsley and cream; simmer for a minute and re-season if necessary. Serve immediately.