Encyclopedia of Food and Cookery

Fish is the gourmet’s joy, the hurried cook’s friend and a boon to weight-watchers and the cholesterolconscious, it is highly nutritious and always tender. Selected carefully, used promptly and cooked briefly, fish will reward you with fine eating.

Freshness of fish is all-important. A fish which has been kept a day too long in the shop or in your refrigerator may still be perfectly edible, but the best of its pure and delicate flavour will have disappeared. When you are buying a whole fish, check for full, bright eyes, flat gills which are red underneath, and a clenched mouth. Fresh fish should feel slippery not tacky, and it should smell ‘of the sea’ – fishy but fresh.

When buying fish steaks or fillets, be especially careful. Sometimes stale fish are filleted and labelled ‘fresh fillets’. Again, they should smell fishy but fresh, and have a sheen, not a dull surface. If pressed, the flesh should feel springy and the indentation should quickly disappear. If the flesh oozes and the indentation fills with moisture, then the steak or fillet has been frozen and thawed and should not be offered as fresh fish.

Buy fish on the day you will eat it, if possible. If you must keep it overnight, store it, loosely covered in foil, in the coldest part of the refrigerator.

Types of fish:

Fat fish includes mullet and all those which are commercially tinned or smoked – salmon, trout, herring, sardines, tuna, mackerel, tailor, gemfish, etc. These are technically classified as ‘oily’ fish, although they come in many variations of texture and fat content from the undoubtedly oily mullet to the succulent but delicate trout and salmon. In general, dark-fleshed fish are the oiliest.

Like your butcher, the fishmonger can be a useful guide to the best fish for a particular recipe. Basic preparation: If you are buying fish, ask the fishmonger to clean and scale it for you. They will also skin, fillet or cut it into steaks if you ask. If you have caught it or been given it, you can prepare it at home.

To scale a fish: Working on plenty of newspaper, grasp the tail and scrape firmly from the tail towards the head with a small rigid knife or a serrated, fish-scaling knife. Repeat on the other side.

To clean a fish: Cut open along the belly from the vent (near the tail) to the head, and pull out the entrails. Wash the fish inside and out under cold running water. With a small knife, remove any dark stomach lining or dark vein inside under the backbone. Wash again and dry the fish well.

To fillet round fish: Place fish on a board and grasp firmly. With a sharp, flexible knife, remove head and cut along the backbone to the tail. Starting at the head end, slide the knife closely along the backbone, cutting away the fillet all the way to the tail. Turn the fish over and repeat on the other side, cutting off the tail.

To fillet flat fish: These fish yield 4 fillets – 2 on each side. Place fish on a board and grasp the head firmly. Cut round behind the head and down the backbone from head to tail. Using a sharp, flexible knife slide the blade closely down the backbone to the tail on one side, cutting away the fillet. Remove the second fillet in the same way. Turn fish over and repeat on the other side.

To skin a fish fillet: Place the fillet skin side down on a board with the tail towards you. Make a small cut through the flesh at the tail end. Dip the fingers of one hand in salt and hold the tail firmly. With the other hand ease a sharp, flexible knife between flesh and skin, pushing the flesh off the skin.

To cook: Fish should be moist and juicy when served, and must not be cooked beyond the moment when the flesh turns from translucent to opaque. This usually takes minutes only. If cooking a whole fish, start testing halfway through the recommended cooking time by pushing a fine skewer into the thickest part near the bone. When it slides in easily and you can push the flesh away from the bone just a little, the fish is cooked.

Pan-fried fish: Use Clarified Butter or a mixture of oil and butter, enough to cover the base of the pan. When sizzling well, add fish and cook quickly. Before frying, the fish may be coated with seasoned flour or with egg and breadcrumbs.

Fish meunière: Skin fillets of white fish, dust with seasoned flour and pan-fry as above. Remove to a heated plate when done. Add a little more butter to the pan and while it is foaming, add the strained juice of a lemon, chopped parsley, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pour over the fish, garnish with lemon and serve at once.

Deep-fried fish: Coat fish with egg and breadcrumbs or with batter; very small fish such as whitebait may simply be dipped in milk and seasoned flour. Deep-fry in very hot oil or test oil with a bread cube: if it browns in 30 seconds the oil is hot enough. Drain on crumpled paper towels.

Poached fish: Use Court Bouillon, water acidulated with vinegar or lemon juice or a mixture of wine and water – there should be just enough to cover fish. Cover dish with buttered baking paper and cook very gently so that the liquid barely shivers, never bubbles, on top of the stove, or in a preheated moderately slow oven (160°C). The poaching liquor is often used for a sauce to accompany the fish.

Grilled fish: Preheat the grill (broiler) so that fish will grill as fast as possible. For fillets and small steaks, line the grill pan with foil, melt a little butter in it and grill the fish on one side only – the heat of the pan will cook the underside. Baste once or twice with pan juices.

Large steaks and small whole fish can be grilled in the same way, but turn them halfway through cooking. Slash whole fish in the thickest part so that heat can penetrate.

Barbecued fish: Place fish in an oiled, hinged grill for ease of turning. Cook close to very hot coals, brushing several times with oil or melted butter.

Baked fish: Brush fish with oil or melted butter, place in a well-greased ovenproof dish and season with salt, freshly ground black pepper and a sprinkling of lemon juice or white wine. Cover loosely with buttered foil or baking paper and bake in a preheated hot oven, allowing 6–10 minutes (depending on thickness of the fish) per 500 g, plus 6–10 minutes over. Uncover and brush once or twice with pan juices during cooking.

Ways to use preserved fish:

Smoked fish: See Finnan Haddie and use the same methods for grilling (broiling), poaching or baking any smoked fish.

Pickled fish: Pickling is an excellent way of preserving oily-fleshed fish such as herrings. Pickled herrings are available packed in jars from many supermarkets and delicatessens, and they are delicious with rye breads, sour cream and fresh onion rings.

Pickled rollmops are boned, halved herrings, rolled around peppercorns and onion slices. Try them on black bread spread with unsalted butter and accompanied with a salad of baby beetroot.

Soused herrings may be prepared at home, using a vinegary marinade to which herbs and spices are added; enjoy them with rye breads and potato salad.

Dried fish: Fish such as cod and haddock can be dried to a flatness and hardness resembling hide. It is reconstituted by soaking in water for at least 12 hours. Change the water several times during this period.

Salted fish: Use salt cod to make Brandade de Morue, a deliciously light dish from Provence, which is almost a fish purée.

Grilled Sardines: Grilled (broiled) or barbecued fresh sardines make a memorable first course. Rub off scales with a cloth or soft paper. Leave sardines whole or butterfly them. If leaving whole, there is no need to gut them – eat flesh off bone in same way as you would eat corn on the cob.

To butterfly them, cut the head almost through from backbone; pull, and as head comes off the gut will come with it. Slit fish along belly and lift out backbone, cutting it off with scissors close to the tail (leave tail on).

Rinse and dry sardines; turn them in seasoned flour, brush with oil and arrange side by side in an oiled, hinged grill. Grill or barbecue close to high heat, brushing several times with oil, for 2–3 minutes each side. Serve with lemon wedges and crusty bread. Allow 500 g sardines to serve 4 as a first course.

See also Anchovy; Tuna.


Quantity Ingredient
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