Sunday, September 05, 2010

Food, Fashion & Fish: How being a bit different can save you a packet

I'm an avid collector of cook books, but not just any cook books. I tend to look for books which offer specific insights into a region or type of cooking, or older books which might have information which has been forgotten. You'll often find me in charity shops or second hand book shops rummaging amongst the shelves looking for hidden gems.

One of the last I picked up on one of these haunts was titled "Fishing for Food" by Trevor Housby. It was published in 1979 and sold then for the grand price of 99p. It cost me 50p, which I suppose isn't bad depreciation for something that's over 30 years old, though of course 99p would have bought you a fair bit more back in '79.

It's a fascinating book (well, more an extended pamphlet really) on all different types of fishing, whether from shore or boat, and also on lots of different types of fish and how good they are to eat. The usual suspects are there, bass for example is highly recommended, but I noticed as I skimmed through there was a section at the back for 'Odd Fish' and what should I find tucked in there but monkfish - and what it had to say there was quite surprising. It very clearly stated that "monkfish has very little value as food".

Monkfish? Not good eating?

Now I've enjoyed the odd bit of monkfish in the past, and have done the usual recipes that most cooks will have done, e.g. the roasted loin wrapped in ham, But to be honest I've never been able to justify the experience of eating monkfish with the price. It's an exorbitantly priced fish at the best of times, and when there is so much other great fish to choose to cook I can't stomach the (no pun intended!) extra cost - I just don't find I get the extra flavour that I expect with that extra cost.

On closer examination it seemed my new book was actually talking about a slightly different monkfish to the ones we usually consume - monkfish and angler fish are often called the same thing, and it's the angler fish which has the tasty tail, some other monkfish truly are not good as food. But it did spark me into thinking a bit more about food and fashion nonetheless, and specifically fish.

Last night was a case in point. I was at a local fishmonger looking for something for supper, and being the end of the day there wasn't much left. It was dabs, plaice, monkfish, dover sole or whiting. Now dover sole is marvellous stuff, no question, but very expensive too. I'm very fond of a bit of plaice though, and these were still stiff as a board they were so fresh - a great sign in fish. But it was the price that was most surprising. I could have bought some monkfish at £31 per kilo, but the plaice were selling at only £9 per kilo! No doubt in my mind what to buy, so I spent £5 on a couple of lovely fresh plaice which I then cooked up meuniere style with new potatoes and runner beans from the garden.

Plaice Meuniere

I guess many people are aware that fashion changes the price of food - it wasn't so long ago that oysters were food for the poor for example, and now they're served with champagne at specialist oyster bars. If you can move beyond the trendy food though you can save yourself a packet and still enjoy really great fish and other seafood.

Try something new, save yourself a packet

Plaice it seems is there right now, but if you're not keen on that there will always be things like dabs - fish too small and too plain to attract the interest of chefs. Another great fish that is often still cheap is Gurnard, an odd looking thing but with a wonderful flavour and a great texture too - much better than your monkfish I reckon, and at at least half the cost! My favourite way is cooking is whole and skinned with sage butter, wonderful stuff.

Gurnard pan fried whole with sage butter and lemon mash

Whatever fish you choose, just remember that something a little different might be more rewarding than you think, and be cheaper to boot. Diversity is the spice of life, so save some pennies and buy something different!

P.S. As an interesting aside, whilst researching for this post I came across this article talking about the rise of monkfish back in 1997. 
P.P.S. Another interesting aside perhaps, and a lesson to those who always trust the first website they read. Here are two articles on Gurnard. Apparently it's either got a stunning flavour and a good texture or is bland, depending who you believe :-) Personally I think I'll stick to believing my tastebuds, and they give it the thumbs up!
P.P.P.S. One final note then I'm done, honest. If you're looking for a good book on fish in general, and not only how to get your plaice into fillets but also to prepare a meuniere sauce, then look no further than Rick Stein's Seafood. Techniques and recipes for just about all the classic fish dishes you could want.

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