Cooking fish can be daunting for amateurs and chefs alike. As ever, simplicity is key. Practise with this lemon sole recipe: failsafe, but no less impressive for it
This week I'm pulling on my chef's whites again, and getting behind a restaurant stove for the first time in more than 20 years. My friend Mitch Tonks, the chef and restaurateur, has asked me to help him train the team at his Dartmouth seafood restaurant Rockfish (which is, in my entirely biased view, the best fish place in the country) and to do this I have to get my hands dirty.
Amateur cooks are famously nervous about cooking fish, and even in the professional kitchen it is regarded with some trepidation. Under the strict hierarchy of the French brigade system, the chef de partie (section chef) on the sauce is theoretically the top dog: he or she is responsible not only for the sauces but for preparing all of the meat. The fish section, however, carries an undeniable cachet. The fish chef will often, unofficially, have equal, if not higher, status than the sauce chef. Think Han Solo v Luke Skywalker.
Until I met Mitch, I too was anxious about cooking fish. But now that I have one of Britain's best seafood chefs at my fingertips (or at least, in my phone), the world is literally my oyster. What happens is this: I go to the fishmonger, buy whatever looks best and then text Mitch. He texts me back a short, simple recipe which - critically - comes with a large margin for error. The output is always delicious. Here are some examples:
Me: Lemon sole without it falling apart and being tasteless?
Mitch: Get them to fillet it. Wrap in foil, add butter, cumin, bake 8 mins, 180C. Finish with fresh coriander & lemon juice - quick tagine!
Me: White crab meat? Bit dull?
Mitch: Mix lemon and peppery olive oil with salt until flavours balance. Fold in crab meat. Add fine chopped celery, heap on bread.
Me: Bored of fried scallops.
Mitch: Slice thinly, marinate in lime juice and salt ONLY FOR 5 MINS! Add chopped chilli, mint & parsley.
Me: Some big fat cold-water prawns?
Mitch: Fry fine garlic & ginger with 1 tsp shrimp paste. Add 1 tbsp tom ketch & chilli. Add peeled raw prawns, a bit of water and simmer. Great chilli prawns! Add fresh coriander if you like.
Me: Monkfish without it being tough like lobster?
Mitch: Rub raw fillets with salt, pepper, olive oil and coriander powder. BBQ v hot until charred and breaking up. Rub with VERY FINELY chopped raw garlic and parsley.
Not everyone can have a Mitch on the end of the phone (he's a very busy man), but you can build your confidence just by having a go. The more fish you cook, the better you get at cooking fish. It seems to be working for me. I may not yet be a fish Jedi in the kitchen, but I'm no longer a Jar Jar Binks.
Confidence-building grilled lemon sole
Ask your fishmonger to remove the head and trim the sole. The outer fin/frill should be removed along with the guts and scales. If you have a party of 4-6 to cook for, grill the fish in batches, allowing the cooked fish to rest, covered in foil, in a warm place or in a very low oven.
Prep time : 5 minutes
Cooking time : 10 minutes
2 x 400g lemon sole - head removed and trimmed
1 tsp parsley, chopped
1 tsp tarragon, chopped
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt and black pepper
1 Preheat your grill to medium to hot. Line your grill pan with baking parchment.
2 Wash and dry the fish. Make a few slashes with a sharp knife across the fish on the dark skin side. Mix half the butter with the chopped herbs and melt the other half. Use this to brush both sides of the fish and season well.
3 Put the fish on the baking parchment, dark skin side up, and grill for 8-10 minutes without turning. To check that the sole is cooked, try the flesh at the thickest part of the fish (near the head). The flesh should come away from the bone. Dot with the herb butter and flash under the grill to soften. Finish with a good squeeze of lemon juice.
4 Transfer the fish to serving plates and collect any juices from the parchment. Pour the juice over the fish. Serve with extra lemon wedges.
What else you can do
Mix some brown shrimps in with the herb butter. They are expensive, so it's a real treat.
Instead of tarragon, use capers.
Mix some white (or brown, or both) crabmeat into the herb butter.
Use only tarragon in the butter and serve with shredded prosciutto.
Simple sole ... easy to prepare and impressive. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian