Fish is the ultimate in fast food. It's also one of the most versatile foods you can eat, lending itself to most cooking methods.
How to buy fish
Try to find a shop that sells whole fish, it will give you confidence. If they do, see that the fish is fresh with bright eyes, and red or pink gills.
If you go to a fish shop, they sell fish and nothing else. Their mission is to find what you want to buy each day. If they lose your confidence by having fish that is less than perfect, you may not go back again and that could mean the end of their business.
Supermarkets have worked hard to improve their fish offering and now offer a genuine alternative to the specialist shops.
Whole fish should have bright eyes, red or pink gills and should smell of the sea you shouldn't get a 'high' fish smell. (A good test is that you should be able to take the bag of fish home in the front of the car and not know that you have fish sitting next to you.)
If you can't find what you want, don't worry. Ask for advice. Many recipes are flexible enough to use another fish. If you go out looking for salmon cutlets to bake in tin-foil, you can easily buy seatrout fillets instead, and treat them exactly the same way. (A little butter or oil, salt, pepper, a few slices of lemon or ginger, a slice or two of garlic and bake for 15 minutes. Pierce the flesh, if it is not cooked, stick it back in for another five minutes and check again).
Put fish in the fridge the minute you get home. It is delicate and needs to be kept cool.
Types of fish
You have white fish and oily fish.
Cod, haddock, plaice, sole and turbot are examples of white fish.
White fish are leaner, because the oils are in the liver, which of course you don't eat.
Mackerel, salmon, tuna, herring and trout are called oily fish, because the oils are in the flesh which you eat.
We often just think of prawns and mussels when we talk about shellfish, but of course you also have oysters, scallops, squid, periwinkle and whelks among others.
It is better to buy all fish fresh, but prawns can be good when they are frozen. Leave them to defrost, then pat dry before using. (See our recipe for Prawns in Thyme.)
For some reason, shellfish can be charged at a premium when you go to a restaurant, possibly because it has exotic associations yet it's so easy to cook at home and much cheaper to buy in a fishmonger.
Many of the tastiest shellfish, like whelks and clams, are ignored yet they have fabulous flavour and are very healthy. Who can resist the Italian dish of Spaghetti Vongole?
How to cook it
Fish is the ultimate fast food you can steam, bake, grill, poach, fry, stir-fry, microwave, stew or barbecue it.
How to know when fish is cooked
Fish turns from translucent to opaque when you cook it. Stick a skewer into the thick part of the fish to see if it comes out clean (just like you would with a cake).
Steaming is a good way to cook delicate fish, or any fish for that matter. Use a bamboo or metal steamer, and put the fish on an oiled plate. It usually only takes about 10 to 15 minutes. You can sprinkle aromatics like chopped spring onions, ginger or garlic on top of the fish, and add a little sweet mirin, fish sauce, white wine or other liquid to add flavour.
A really easy way to cook fish is to bake it either put the fish in an oven-proof dish, with a little liquid or dots of butter and season it with salt and pepper. You can also sit the fish on a bed of vegetables, say fennel or celery, to save it from getting too direct a heat from the bottom of the dish. Alternatively wrap it loosely in tin foil with a little of the flavouring liquid and a few herbs. You can also cover it in sauce, top with herby breadcrumbs and bake, and have a dish ready in the oven. Fish pie is very popular and because fish cooks quickly, it will be ready at the same time as the pastry.
Grilling fish is a healthy way of cooking fish. It can smell out your grill, so immerse it in water immediately. If you are grilling fish, make sure that you can get it off the rack easily if the fish is very thin and delicate, line it with oiled tin foil. Use a large flat spatula to turn the fish so it doesn't break. If you are cooking whole fish, cut slits in the thickest part to make sure it cooks evenly.
This is when you cook fish in liquid. You can do it with white fish or shellfish. Just put the fish into a little stock or milk and simmer gently (never boil). You can add flavourings like a bay leaf or herbs. You can strain the poaching liquid, and use it to make a sauce by adding a roux or white wine or herbs. The exception is smoked fish which can make the resulting liquid too strongly flavoured and salty, and spoil the sauce.
This is the least healthiest way to cook fish, but probably the one that we remember most from childhood. The fish is often protected by a batter, or by a coating of flour, to stop the heat from damaging the fish. You can shallow-fry in a little olive oil or deep fry (for battered fish) in sunflower, corn oil, or lard. You need to ensure the oil is hot enough so that the fish doesn't soak up the oil, then drain the fish well and dry it in paper towels. Stir-frying, where you move the fish about quickly in a little hot oil, works well for shellfish as do the sturdier fish like monkfish that won't break down in cooking.
One of the best ways to cook fish, if you are trying to lose weight, or eat more healthily. It also underpins fish's reputation as the best fast food! Make sure the fish is flat in the dish, so that all of it cooks evenly. Leave to stand when you take it out, as you would all microwaved food. Sprinkle fresh lemon juice on top, and add salt and pepper.
This is where you cook the fish in a pot. It suits firm fish like monkfish or turbot, and if you add more liquid in the form of stock and wine, and vegetables you have a soup. You still can't cook it for a terribly long time, as you would a meat stew as the fish will break down in the liquid.
It's best to do whole fish, or sturdy fish like salmon cutlets or monkfish which can stand up to the heat. Fine delicate fish like plaice need to be baked over the barbecue in tin foil to save its soft flesh from disintegrating (add a little liquid to keep the fish . Oil fish are great for the barbecue as they stand up to the strong flavour that barbecues can impart to food, and the oil helps them to cook and to keep them moist. You can get a wire basket for whole fish, that gives an attractive pattern to the skin's fish when the heat sears it. Shellfish are great for the barbecue, especially prawns in their shells.
Often called Sashimi, or made into rice rolls called Sushi in Japanese cooking, you need to be careful where you get your raw fish from. Only buy it at its absolute freshest and make sure it is sashimi quality. It's safest to eat it at a reputable restaurant.
Prawns with Thyme
Plateau de fruits de mer Seafood Platter