Our house, on a sea loch, is opposite Mallaig, one of the two main fishing ports on the west coast. Three times a week a wonderful variety of fish from the cold waters of the seas around Scotland, as well as from the rivers and lochs, is sold in the market held in a shed the size of a hangar. It is from there that our orders are sent over by ferry.
I blush when I think back to our first summer of this hotel life. In those days, fish to me meant salmon for the guests, and for the family mackerel, herring and fish pie (using smoked fish, sometimes dressing it up with prawns, or mashing celeriac with the potatoes).
Monkfish, which now costs the earth, used to be thrown back in the sea in those days. This endearingly hideous fish has a huge wide head and fascinating slack-jawed mouth (for scooping shoals of small fish off the bottom of the sea). Its teeth come in rows, top and bottom stretching right back to its tonsils.
I describe the head because so few buyers get a chance to see it: fishmongers throw it away, wasting the flesh in the cheeks that are so prized by Breton cooks. The monkfish tail is the part we eat. It has no bones, only a thick central cartilage, and the flesh is sliced from either side of this to produce two fillets of firm-fleshed fish.
It is ideal stir-fried and, because it is a robust fish, can be wrapped in rashers of streaky bacon, brushed with melted butter and roasted. The bacon enhances the flavour as well as preventing the fish drying out as it cooks.
Our small menu here has fish every day. We use salmon - wild, not farmed, despite what many well-thought-of cooks, chefs and cookery writers maintain, and despite, at times, real vilification from the Scottish Salmon Growers Association. Although there are some very good salmon farms, I am afraid I can always tell the difference.
We also use hake, monkfish, cod, sea bass (when we get it), baby Dover soles, squid, crab (I like a combination of brown and white crab meat), scallops, mussels and prawns.
The prawns are the huge and succulent Dublin bay sort, also known as Norwegian lobsters. But when their heads are removed they can legitimately be called scampi.
Over the centuries, the Scots have perfected the art of fish preservation.
By far the most popular method is by smoking - either cold or hot. Kippers are cold smoked and, mercifully, these days are not dyed that horribly unnatural shade of rich mahogany (the dye was put in the brine in which the kippers were dipped for 20 minutes or so, before being hung in a smokehouse overnight).
All I know about the art of preservation I learnt many years ago from George Lawrie, a fourth-generation fish smoker from Mallaig. He even taught me that there really is such a thing as a red herring: it is a herring that has just spawned. A slit is made in their necks, but they are not otherwise cleaned.
They are salted, which usually takes seven days, soaked overnight in fresh water and then hung at the top of the smokehouse for a month. A few tiny slivers are enough, though, to make me feel as if I need to drink for a week.
But when it comes to smoked fish, two dishes that are very much better made with smoked haddock or cod, rather than the salmon, are fish cakes and fish pie. And when you make fish cakes with smoked fish, you can also beat some of the fishy milk into the mashed potatoes to introduce even more flavour.
I have also discovered a foolproof way of boning, which is to feel the fish with your fingertips when it is raw - that way you can be quite sure of pulling out, or slicing out, the bones.
If you wait until the fish is cooked, often it is sticky, and then it is easy for a removed bone to make its way back into the cooked fish having first stuck to your finger.
Cod in filo parcels with parsley and garlic Serves 4 Ingredients: 4 cod fillets, skinned 4 sheets of filo pastry 2oz (60g) butter 2 large handfuls of parsley leaves 3 garlic cloves, blanched in their skins for 2 minutes 4tbs olive oil salt and freshly ground black pepper Preparation: Put the parsley into a food processor. Chop the ends off the blanched garlic cloves, squeeze each clove, and the flesh should pop out straight into the processor. Season with salt and pepper, whiz, gradually adding the olive oil. Decant into a bowl.
Melt the butter. Lay out a sheet of filo, brush with butter, cover with a second sheet of filo and brush with butter. Cut in half widthwise. Lay a piece of cod in the middle of each half. Spread a quarter of the parsley paste on each bit of cod. Fold up like a parcel, put each parcel on to a buttered baking tray, and brush each parcel with melted butter. At this stage you can leave the tin in the fridge until you are ready. Bake the fish in a hot oven, 225C/425F/gas 6, for 15 minutes. Serve immediately.
Seafood stir-fry Serves 6 Ingredients: 1 1/2 lb (675g) monkfish, skinned and trimmed and cut into 1in pieces 1 red pepper 3-4 leeks, washed and trimmed and sliced diagonally into 1in pieces 1-2 garlic cloves, skinned and chopped finely 2in piece of root ginger, peeled and chopped finely 3tbs sunflower oil 2tbs each: hoisin sauce, soya sauce and dry sherry black pepper Preparation: Grill pepper until the skin blisters and is loose from the flesh. Cool in covered bowl for 10 minutes. Slip out core and seeds and slice into strips, retaining juice to add to stir-fry. (This can be done hours before the meal.) Heat oil until a haze rises from the wok or frying pan. Reduce heat and immediately add leeks, chopped garlic and ginger together, stirring until the leeks are soft. Decant into a warmed dish, keeping as much oil as you can in the pan. Add more if necessary. Reheat pan to smoking point, reduce heat and add the sliced monkfish. Cook for a minute or two until the fish turns opaque. Return leeks, ginger and garlic to the pan, stir in the hoisin sauce, soya sauce and sherry, and season with black pepper. Cook all together for a minute, then serve. If you are adding shellfish which is already cooked, add it when you replace the leeks, ginger and garlic.
Claire Macdonald is co- proprietor of Kinloch Lodge Hotel, Isle of Skye (0471 833214/333).Reuse content