Every time I travel to a Mediterranean country, I find it is very easy to enjoy fish and seafood almost daily due to its availability and how it is so well integrated into the diet of the people. I guess eating seaside, a thing you can do on any part of the Mediterranean coastline, is all part of the romance too.
Here in Australia, it seems to stop at ‘fish n chip’ Friday and we tend to avoid incorporating fish meals into the rest of the week. I think there are several reasons for this. One is that for many it is a religious observance to not eat meat on Fridays, although I would say this has evolved into a habit and an easy, relaxed option to not cook at the end of the week by ordering from the local fish n chip shop instead. Secondly, sometimes it’s a struggle to find a local fishmonger but I think that one of the biggest factors is that there is definitely a general lack of confidence in cooking fish.
There are loads of good reasons to eat more fish. Nutritionally, it’s a high protein, low fat food rich in omega three that ticks so many boxes as a good food choice. It is really quick to cook when you know how and we are really spoilt for choice for quality fish here in Australia both deep sea and freshwater varieties – we are surrounded by water, after all!
I also am an advocate of introducing kids to fish early – and not just boneless boring ol’ flake! Teach them to learn to deal with the bones by first choosing fish with larger bones (like snapper) so they can learn to navigate their way. It is worth it!
Now, back to cooking it. The most essential starting point is finding that good fish supplier. It does depend on where you live. Ideally, a market is the best source, and I love to buy straight from the supplier when I can, but most food malls have dedicated fish shops and nowadays even the supermarket can help. The important thing is to buy from a store that has a good turnover and always ask if the fish is fresh rather than frozen and thawed. Also aim to cook it on the day you buy it, so it’s as fresh as possible.
Cooking fish is actually quicker and simpler than cooking most meats and if you master just three cooking methods your fish repertoire will expand easily.
Whether you use fillets, fish steaks or small whole fish, I like to keep the skin on for a crispy texture. Firstly, run your knife along the skin to remove any excess moisture and pat it dry with paper towel – this helps it become more crispy when cooking. You can either then coat it in flour or just season well with salt and pepper.
Heat a little olive oil or butter in heavy based pan and when sizzling, add the fish, skin side down and cook for 2-3 minutes. Use a spatula to press the fish down as it’s cooking. Sometimes I gently press the fish with the base of another pan to keep it flat and crisp the skin. Flip it over and cook a further 2 minutes or until the fish flakes easily with a fork. This, of course, will vary with the thickness of the fish, and the type of fish you are cooking. If you want a rare salmon or tuna, then you need to adjust the cooking time. The main thing is, pay attention – with practice you will learn when the fish is just right for you.
Then finish the fish off simply with a squeeze of lemon and drizzle of olive oil, a bit of sweet chilli sauce, some tartare or you can get more fancy with a more complex sauce.
While I do have a fabulous local fish n chip shop to call up when I have that craving for crisply cooked seafood, I do also love making it at home with my no fail beer batter.
The first step is to prepare the fish and seafood by cutting it into similar size pieces – around the size of the prawns, if you are having them. Pat them dry and get all your utensils ready. I use a wok filled with a deep pool of extra light olive oil for frying, together with a Chinese frying basket, but a deep pot also does the trick. Have a plate lined with paper towel ready for draining the fish and put the oven on 100°C if you want to keep it warm.
Whisk up the beer batter, just before you are going to use it – 1 cup self-raising flour to 1 cup beer (or you can use soda water) and add a teaspoon of salt.
Heat the oil until it’s rippling. Lightly coat the seafood in the batter using your fingers, then gently drop into the oil, frying in batches until golden. It is important not to overcrowd the pan as this will reduce the temperature of the oil and you will get soggy fish n chips which is NOT good! Then fry away, turning as necessary, but don’t stir the oil too much, this too cools it down. Drain well and serve with lemon wedges and an assortment of sauces, like mayonnaise, tartare, seafood cocktail sauce, sweet chilli or even a chimmichurri.
If you are worried about the ‘messiness’ of frying fish, then oven-roasting it is for you. For whole fish, make sure they are well scaled, pat dry and cut a few incisions into the skin on each side. Fill the cavity with a sprinkle of lemon juice, sliced lemons or limes, spring onions and/or fresh herbs. Season, drizzle with olive oil and roast for 20-30 minutes for a whole trout or medium snapper size – 45 minutes or longer for a larger fish. Use a fork to check if the fish is cooked right down to the bone, flaking easily. Again, if you are going for medium rare then less cooking time is needed.
Once the fish is roasted, I usually drizzle with olive oil mixed with aromatics – capers, spring onions, mustard for a European flavour; ginger, garlic, chilli, sesame, coriander for an Asian twist; chermoula for Moroccan; basil pesto for Italian…etc.
Garnish with a bundle of herbs and it’s a beautiful thing!
(And a last tip…if the smell of cooked fish in the house puts you off…then just burn one of those smelly candles, open the windows and sit back and enjoy your delicious fish dinner!)