Fish is the ultimate in fast food. It’s also one of the healthiest and most versatile foods you can eat, lending itself to most cooking methods.
How and where to buy fish
– Try to find a fishmonger that sells whole fish rather than just filleted fish. It will give you confidence as a buyer. You need to check that the fish is absolutely fresh and the only way you can do that is to see the whole fish which should have bright eyes and red or pink gills. If fish smells ‘fishy’, it’s not fresh because fresh fish smells of very little except the sea.
– Supermarkets have worked hard to improve their fish offering and now offer an alternative to the specialist shops in terms of the variety on offer. But it is impossible to gauge how fresh fish is if it is already filleted. Some supermarket fish can be more than 2 days old (and the rest) by the time you buy it whereas if you buy from a specialist fishmonger, you should be able to see the whole fish before it is filleted. Their mission is to find what you want to buy each day. If they lose your confidence by selling you fish that is less than perfect, you may not go back again and that could mean the end of their business over time. It’s better to buy spankingly fresh fish at a good fishmongers and freeze it, than to buy fish a few days old from a supermarket and eat it on the day you buy it. The food markets increasingly offer a chance to buy fresh fish and you can ask the seller about provenance.
– 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 tinfoil, you can easily buy seatrout fillets instead, and treat them exactly the same way.
–Store fish in the fridge the minute you get home. It is delicate and needs to be kept cool. Use it as soon as possible and if you are not using it that day or the next (assuming that you have bought a very fresh fish to start with), freeze it if you don’t use it the next day. Double-bag and label it. If you buy fish in a supermarket and are not using it the same day, we would advise that you freeze it on the day of purchase.
Types of fish
– You have white fish and oily fish and shellfish.
– Cod, haddock, plaice, sole and turbot are examples of white fish. White fish is 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. They are full of omega-3 fatty acids which may help to reduce inflammation, and triglyceride levels which are linked to cholesterol.
– 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.
– In most cases it is better to buy fish fresh, but prawns are quite good even when they are frozen.
– 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 made with fresh clams?)
How to cook fish
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 so cutting a slit in the fish and looking at it is the best way of checking its ‘done-ness’. You can also stick a skewer or sharp knife into the thickest 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 including shellfish for that matter. Use a bamboo or metal steamer, and put the fish on an oiled plate or on oiled tinfoil, leaving space for the steam to get through. It usually only takes about 10 to 15 minutes for an average sized fish but you will need to check it as it cooks. 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, dot it with butter and season with salt and pepper. You can also sit the fish on a bed of vegetables, say fennel or onions to save it from getting too direct a heat from the bottom of the dish. Alternatively wrap it loosely in tinfoil with a little of the flavouring liquid and a few herbs. You can also cover it in sauce or top it with herby breadcrumbs and bake.
Grilling fish is a healthy way of cooking fish. It can smell out your grill, so immerse it in water immediately after use. If you are grilling fish, make sure that you can remove it from the rack easily – if the fish is very thin and delicate, line it with oiled tinfoil. 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 in a saucepan or frying pan with a little stock or milk and simmer gently (never boil). Add flavourings like a bay leaf or herbs or a few black, green or pink peppercorns. You can strain the poaching liquid and use it to make a bechamel sauce with white wine and herbs. You can also poach smoked fish in milk, water or stock – the resulting liquid will be strongly flavoured and salty so you may not be able to use all of it in the final dish.
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 fish in a little olive oil or deep fry (for battered fish) in oil or lard (many Dublin chippers fry their fish and chips in lard, if you leave the chips to go cold, you can taste the fatty deposit on the chips that you don’t notice when they are hot). When frying fish, 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 (a rule of thumb is that the oil is hot enough if you can fry a day-old bread crouton in oil and it turns brown between 30-60 seconds). Stir-frying, where you move the fish about quickly in a little hot oil, works well for shellfish and sturdier fish like monkfish that won’t break down during cooking.
One of the best ways to cook fish if you are trying to lose weight, or eat more healthily is to microwave it. It also underpins fish’s reputation as the best fast food. Season the fish, place it in a microwave dish, making sure the fish is flat in the dish, so that all of it cooks evenly. Leave the fish to stand when you take it out, as you would all microwaved food. To find timings, check your microwave recipe cookbook.
This is where you cook the fish in a saucepan or casserole as part of a stew. It suits firm fish like monkfish or turbot. You still can’t cook the fish for a terribly long time as you would a meat stew, or the fish will break down in the liquid – it’s best to add the fish near the end of cooking.
It’s best to barbecue whole fish, or sturdy fish like salmon cutlets or monkfish which can stand up to the heat. Fine delicate fish like plaice needs to be baked over the barbecue in tin foil to save its soft flesh from disintegrating (add a little liquid to keep the fish moist) . Oily fish are great for the barbecue as they stand up to the strong flavour that barbecues 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 that it is sashimi quality. It’s probably safest to eat it at a reputable restaurant if you can’t find a source of very fresh fish.
What fish not to buy
– Avoid endangered species such as bluefin tuna, Atlantic salmon, tropical shrimps and swordfish and fish that has been ‘over-fished’ such as cod – though North Sea Cod stocks are on the rise, it takes time before the fish becomes sustainable over the long-term. You will know when to buy it when the price comes down. A fish that is rare is expensive.
– Choose a local fish, one that is caught in seas or rivers near to you.
– Ensure the fish you buy are of the minimum size necessary to reproduce (there are fish such as Orange Roughy which only reach the age of reproduction at 20 years, for example).
– The fish should be in season, that is outside its period of reproduction.
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