I’m in a funny state of mind at the moment. Much of my time is spent thinking about the films of Billy Wilder, the novels of Jane Austen, and fish. This is both absorbing and frustrating. However, the ins and outs of Hollywood masterpieces and Regency love triangles will have to wait for future posts. For now, I’m going to focus on the fishy situation.
I’m trying to cook ten different varieties of fish and to end up with a recipe for each that I feel has been a complete success. The essential test is whether I would be happy to serve it to friends. This all sounds quite straightforward but I’m having to negotiate some unexpected hurdles along the way to seafood bliss.
Before going into the details of my fishy travails, I’d better explain why I’m doing this. It’s all part of my list of 60 things I want to do before my next big birthday. I started this nearly four years ago, and have already done 38 of them. There have been some splendid highs – Glastonbury, River Café chocolate cake, riding and Berlin. And a few lows where things just didn’t work out as I’d hoped. But that’s life and I’ve learned something useful from each. And I’ve had a huge amount of fun with them. These ‘treats’ have helped me to learn more about who I am in this potentially shapeless post-children phase of life. They’ve also helped me through some challenging life events.
So… back to the fish. I put this treat on my list because although I love cooking, I’ve not got much confidence with fish. I’ve always been put off by the bones and the scary warnings in recipes not to overcook it. And then of course there’s the cost. If you’re buying for a family of six, as I usually was, you would need to regularly re-mortgage your house. I want to demystify the process and broaden my culinary horizons.
When I first told my daughter Molly, then aged fourteen, about my fish project, she looked impressed. “Are you going to catch it yourself?’ she asked. Since then I’ve had such problems sourcing what I need, that I’ve begun to wonder whether her suggestion might have been easier.
I decided to start with plaice. Something familiar and therefore not too daunting. A peruse along my extensive cookery book shelf led to the plan of stuffing it with prawns, garlic, lemon and parsley. Mmmm. I set off optimistically to the supermarket with my list. Two whole plaice, prawns, garlic, two lemons and a bunch of flat-leaf parsley. But as a fish-buying virgin I hadn’t bargained on the fact that late on a Monday afternoon, two whole plaice would be so hard to find. I wandered around disconsolately and that night we had mushroom risotto.
The first day of the working week seems to be turning into fish Monday in my house, so the following one I turned my attention to skate. I’ve had this with black butter in restaurants several times, and like it very much. Again I identified a likely-looking recipe and again I needed lemon and parsley. Also capers, butter, white wine vinegar and two skate wings. I set off purposefully in my lunch hour to track them down. At the large branch of Sainsbury’s I ticked off nearly everything on my list and then joined the queue at the fish counter. The man who was serving there looked professional in his white coat and boater. I placed all my confidence in him. But I was misguided. “Oh, no”, he said. “We don’t stock skate”. “Try Asda”. Now, I only moved to this area a few months ago and am still finding my way round the city. But my knowledge was enough to be aware that this is a fifteen minute drive away and my lunch hour was rapidly disappearing. I thanked him, swore politely under my breath and paid for the fish-related things in my basket.
Back in the car and on my way to Asda, I spotted a branch of Waitrose. I was sure that they wouldn’t let me down so pulled into the car park. “Do you have a fish counter”, I asked an assistant, ever so slightly urgently. She smiled reassuringly and pointed towards the back of the store. There, lay a beautiful array of fish, all pink, white and grey with the odd bit of parsley scattered around for some visual satisfaction. And to my relief I counted six skate wings lying there enticingly. There were four people in the queue ahead of me so I resolved to wait patiently and try not to worry about the fact that I’d already used half of my lunch hour. Salmon for the first customer. Cod for the second. Scallops and monkfish for the third. And five skate wings for the fourth. Yes. Five skate wings.
I’ve rarely disliked anyone as much as this customer, and glowered at her as the assistant packed the fish into a bag and handed them over. Then it was my turn. “I need two skate wings”, I said looking sadly at the singleton on the slab. “Do you have any more?” The young assistant went off to check. She was only gone for three minutes but this was a significant proportion of my remaining lunch hour. No luck. I toyed with the idea of sharing one wing between two of us, but that seemed a waste of effort so I did a bit more swearing under my breath and set off for Asda.
Another fish counter that looked inviting. And I counted four skate wings. There were three people in the queue so I fidgeted and glared suspiciously as each one was served. Smoked haddock, prawns and cod were dispensed efficiently and then it was my turn. “Two skate wings” I panted, waiting for the hitch. But there was none, and the nice lady assistant popped them into a bag, and then sealed and weighed it. She started making pleasant conversation but I was in a hurry and not in the mood for small talk. I tried not to look rude whilst grabbing the bag and dashing to a vacant checkout. I put it on the conveyor belt and once again was faced with a chatty assistant. As I got my purse out to pay for my one item, she smiled. ‘That was a nice easy shop’, she said innocently.
I rushed back and arrived ten minutes late. That evening I chopped and stirred and the kitchen was full of a wonderful smell that took me back to various pubs I remember from my teenage years by the coast in Devon. The skate with black butter was delicious.
This Monday it was seared scallops with a light dressing made of garlic, olive oil, finely chopped vine tomatoes and herbes de Provence. Rick Stein’s recipe didn’t let me down. And nor did Asda. I got what I wanted straightaway and even had time for a sandwich. Things in the world of fish are looking up.