As an avid seafood eater and occasional fisherman, I have amassed a boatload of fish cookbooks. Among my favorites is “The River Cottage Fish Book” (Ten Speed Press, 2012). Written by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher, British broadcasters, cooks and lifelong fishermen, this weighty tome explores the complicated issues of catching, selecting and preparing seafood both safely and sustainably. Part reference book and part recipe collection, it has become my go-to source whenever I have a question or concern about fish.
“The River Cottage Fish Book” starts off with engaging anecdotes about the authors’ first childhood fishing experiences. It then eases into three comprehensive but approachable chapters on sourcing, cleaning, storing and preparing fish and shellfish. Any quandaries readers may have about choosing ecologically sound seafood, killing a crustacean, filleting a flatfish or freezing and subsequently defrosting a whole fish are resolved here.
With facts and fundamentals established, the authors move on to the heart of any cookbook, the recipes. In “The River Cottage Fish Book,” Fearnley-Whittingstall and Fisher serve up 135 creative yet remarkably easy dishes, all of which focus on sustainable seafood. Mackerel stuffed with salsa verde, pike fishcakes with caper sauce and squid and tomato risotto dazzled but did not tax me or the sea ecology. Simple, British-inspired repasts such as smoked haddock-studded kedgeree, fish bubble and squeak, and the rich, oniony fish soup known as Cullen skink were equally sound and scrumptious.
Fearnley-Whittingstall and Fisher conveniently group their recipes according to technique. Yearning for beer-battered fish? Flip to the chapter on shallow and deep frying and you’ll find a tasty recipe for this very dish. In the mood for a savory seafood pie or gratin? You’ll come across several delightful concoctions in the chapter on baked and grilled fish.
In most instances, the recipes can be used interchangeably with other fish. Helpful sidebars point out specific substitutions. The head notes and ingredient lists often cite this information too.
Along with providing reliable and delectable recipes, the authors also delve into the art of preserving seafood. By the end of “The River Cottage Fish Book” readers know how to build their own hot- and cold-smokers and whip together pickling marinades and salt fish. They can create such renowned dishes as ceviches, escabeches, taramosalata and gravad lax or, in this case, the eco-friendly, salt- and sugar-cured mackerel.
The two likewise look at seafood affinities, discussing the foods and flavors that partner well with fish and shellfish. They explore the merits of raw seafood and consider which condiments, such as pickled ginger and shallot vinegar, enhance it. Additionally, they take readers step by step through creating such uncooked classics as sashimi, sushi, carpaccio and tartare.
First published in the United Kingdom in 2007, “The River Cottage Fish Book” features quite a bit of British seafood. A section titled “British Fish” showcases just that — the species caught and consumed in the U.K. The presence of European catches such as John Dory, wrasse and winkles doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book. I found it fascinating to learn what our neighbors to the east catch, cook and eat. Plus, should my fishmonger get in a rare shipment of cockles or sprat, I now know what to do with each. Anyone care for creamy cockles with tagliatelle or smoked sprat?
If the wealth of fascinating information and recipes hadn’t already sold me on “The River Cottage Fish Book,” then the powerful color photographs surely did. Both illustrative and captivating, the photos are a sumptuous visual feast. I could almost skip cooking and display this as a coffee-table book. However, with such quality recipes, insightful essays and useful tips, I’ll keep “The River Cottage Fish Book” close at hand in my kitchen.
Kathy Hunt is a syndicated food writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and VegNews, among other publications. She currently is working on her first cookbook.
Photo: British broadcasters and cookbook authors Nick Fisher and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Credit: Simon Wheeler