Many of us feel daunted by cooking fish – so who better to offer tips on buying and preparing the sea's harvest than Rick Stein? He shares the lessons that he's learnt.
Find the freshest (hint: it doesn't smell)
If you're put off cooking fish because of its odour, you're probably buying specimens that have been hanging around the supermarket too long. "Part of the reason that people worry about cooking fish is that it seems alien and it smells weird," says Stein. "Fresh fish doesn't smell." So how to pick out the freshest? "Trust your instincts. It's not knowledge – we're hard-wired to know what looks good." Gills should be pink or red, not faded or brown, and the fish should have clear, bright eyes. The body should be firm with a good sheen. Any colours should be bright – look for orange spots on plaice, green and yellow flecks on cod, and green and blue lines on mackerel. And there should be no fishy odour: "Even notoriously smelly fish, such as sardines, smell good when they're fresh."
Pollack doesn't have to be boring
Stein's book includes a recipe for hot pollack slices in a wrap with pak choi, beansprouts, garlic and ginger. The fish is coated in couscous, and the wrap is drizzled in Tabasco and soy sauce. It might be the most exotic incarnation ever for the notoriously bland (but cheap and sustainable) white fish. That's the point, says Stein: "If you've got a fish that you think is boring, this is what you do with it. It becomes an element in the dish and it doesn't matter." Still not convinced? Use hake: "It is better flavoured and one of my favourite fish."
Don't fear the fishmonger
The number of independent fishmongers on Britain's streets increased by 28 per cent between 2012 and 2013, according to recent reports. So much the better, says Stein. "The way forward for better fish for us all is through fishmongers." Not only are you likely to get a fresher specimen, but most fishmongers are an encyclopedia of seafood knowledge. "If you've got a good fishmonger, they'll talk to you about the fish. They will tell you how to cook it, what's special about it and why it costs the amount that it does."
Get savvy with substitutions
Cookbook calls for salmon but there's none at the fishmonger? Try trout, Arctic Char or Yellowtail. "I remember, years ago, talking to somebody who'd wanted to do a recipe from one of my books but couldn't get any monkfish in the fishmonger – but I'd just been down there and they had some great John Dory," says Stein. "It mattered a lot to me."
Almost all the recipes in Fish & Shellfish come with suggested alternatives. "It's really quite straightforward. There's only one rule: you don't tend to cook oily fish such as mackerel or herring in the same way as the others." Aside from that, substitute away: replace turbot with brill or plaice; sardines with anchovies or herring, and monkfish with haddock or John Dory. As Stein puts it: "It doesn't matter what you use – what matters is that it is perfectly fresh."
Get creative with curing
For those used to forking out a fiver for a pack of gravlax, Stein's curing recipes will be a revelation. It turns out that making your own is surprisingly easy: "You just sprinkle it with salt."
"I tend to get a lot of fish all at once, being where I am [Padstow, Cornwall]. So curing is just a way of preserving it. I eat quite a lot of salmon, sometimes I'll just sprinkle it with salt and eat it salted. It's very nice." He's also a fan of salt cod: "Fish stews are always better if one of the pieces of fish is salted. It just gives much more flavour to the whole dish."
Eat the skin...
Pork scratchings are a pub staple, and crispy chicken skin is increasingly ubiquitous on restaurant menus. Could fish skin be next? Maybe. "We tend to discard things that really we shouldn't, and fish skin is one of them," says Stein. He recommends separating the skin from a piece of salmon, salting it and baking it for a snack to serve with beer. "I use salmon because you get a nice piece off a fillet, but you could do the same with any fish that has an oily skin. I'm going to try bass next."
Don't chuck the heads
"Nobody ever eats fish heads in this country. I'm a great fan of fish heads - anybody in France will tell you that it's the best bit."
Explore other cultures
"When I started travelling a great deal, I realised that other countries have such a different take on fish," says Stein, whose recipes look far beyond the familiar traditions of Europe, taking inspiration from India, Malaysia, and China. "A lot of people say that you shouldn't put really spicy sauces with fresh fish, but I really don't believe that. When I was in India filming, I had a curry which I've called a Madras fish curry in the book. It was so stunningly fresh, made with snapper that had just come out of the sea. They did it with a simple masala of mustard seeds, chilli, turmeric and coriander."
Discover the plancha grill
"I just love the way the Spanish have of doing everything à la plancha," says Stein. He first discovered the method – which sees meat, fish or vegetables cooked on a large, flat-top grill – seven years ago. "Someone was cooking some razor clams à la plancha. What appealed to me was that they threw the clams on there, alive and whole, and just drizzled them with olive oil… Then they turned them over and, as they opened, the juice of the meat started to sizzle and evaporate."
Installing a flat-top grill at home might be a step too far – "it's more of a restaurant thing," says Stein – but those seeking to recreate the effect could do worse than his recipe for haddock, grilled for three minutes on a large griddle pan (or a thick frying pan if you don't have one of those), and served with slow-cooked garlic. "It's just such a simple and economical way of cooking and it tastes utterly wonderful."
And finally: the best fish of all
What do you feed the man who has tried (almost) every fish in the world? Dover sole. "For me, it's perfect. I always cook it the same way – which is to pan fry it with a bit of oil and some butter and then make a beurre noisette." But it's not all fine dining: "I'm very happy with a nice piece of hake or mackerel. And I just love a sardine. I'd never do anything other than grill it or pan-fry it and serve it with virtually nothing but a piece of lemon."
'Fish & Shellfish' by Rick Stein is out now (£25, BBC Books)