Ten reasons why people don’t cook fish at home, and how to change it

By
Eve O'Sullivan
Added
05 October, 2015

We caught up with CJ Jackson, principal at Billingsgate Seafood School, to talk about why we don’t eat enough fish. From feeling squeamish to being time poor, she’s heard every excuse in the book, but, as she says, there’s always a way around the problem.

Seafood week

1.    Bad experiences with bones.

‘A lot of people tell me they are either nervous about the tiny bones in fish, or find it too fiddly to remove them,’ says CJ. But, as it happens, there’s a simple way around this. ‘If you cook a tail end, there are no bones - problem solved. Or try something like monkfish; there’s only one main bone, so nothing that will take you by surprise. Flat fish such as plaice are good too, as once filleted there are no small bones to look out for and it’s much easier to spot them when the flesh is cooked.’

 

2. It’s overcooked, again....

‘You’ve got to remember that there’s no such thing as giving fish ‘another minute’’, she declares. ‘Most often, it’s because you’re following instructions, not your own judgement. When you buy processed fish in a packet, it’s expensive; there’s a time and oven temperature given that doesn’t take into account the varying sizes of fillets, so inevitably, you end up with something dry and overdone - not nice, and very disappointing.’ But how do we avoid this? When it comes to baking, white fish is done as soon as the flesh is opaque, and with fish such as salmon, you’ll see white protein bubbles forming on the top. If you’re grilling it, the fish is cooked as soon as the skin peels away. ‘I’d give something like mackerel fillets three minutes under the grill, then check. And remember, if you take fish off the heat, it will continue to cook through for a couple of minutes,’ says CJ. ‘The fear of poisoning yourself is a little unfounded - it is very obvious when fish is not good to eat as it smells off. There are so many regulations in place to make sure shellfish and cleaned well, and also, the smell will make it pretty obvious. It should be a pleasantly reminiscent of the sea, not aging seaweed.’

 

3. The lingering smell.

‘It’s a poor excuse when there are savvy methods of cooking.’ And we agree. ‘If you cook fish in the oven, en papillote, then there’s little smell, and the same when you cover it in clingfilm and microwave it. There’s also the misconception that fish stock takes hours to cook, leaving the smell to waft around the house - not so. It should be poached for 25 minutes at most, otherwise the bones break down and make it murky.’ So what about your leftovers in the bin? CJ has a great tip for that, too. ‘Put the bones and skin in a bag in the freezer, then when it comes to bin day, just take it out and chuck it in. No smell for you, and just a solid, odorless block to dispose of. Cleaning up well is also imperative. First, wash your hands in cold water - if you go for hot straight away, you’ll be cooking raw fish on your hands. Follow the cold water with hot, soapy water, then, at the school, we clean the chopping boards with a steriliser used on babies’ bottles. And there’s no smell whatsoever.’

 

4. There’s no fishmonger on the high street.

Whether you’ve got a great fishmonger down the road or your best option is a major supermarket, you need to buy your fish from someone you can trust, and who doesn’t mind answering your questions. There are two good tests, CJ finds. ‘If it’s spotlessly clean and doesn’t smell, it should be fine. If you’re in a supermarket, then ask the person at the fish counter to skin a fillet for you. If it’s done well, then they know what they are talking about.’ But if you want to have a rough idea of what you’re looking for, it’s quite simple. ‘Whole fish should have bright eyes, red gills and firm bodies. Fillets should be skin-side down on ice, translucent and have tightly knitted flakes. If it’s been sitting around for a bit, they will be bagging and more open.’

 

5. The sustainability minefield… what to choose?

According to CJ, if you pick your source wisely, as she suggests, then you don’t need to know everything. ‘Buy your fish from someone who will answer your questions; I know a huge amount about fish, but I’m still learning something new every day. So there’s no need to feel anxious about gaps in knowledge, especially if you are going to the fish counter in major supermarkets. For the most part, they are pretty hot on sustainability, and the staff at the counter in shops such as Waitrose and Morrisons have been specially trained.’ She also says there’s nothing wrong with buying farmed fish now that practices have improved and are regulated to ensure ethical production. In fact, it’s something that will become more common as time goes on. 

 

6. High market prices and even higher mark ups.

‘A lot of people tell me they don’t cook fish at home because it’s expensive,’ says CJ. ‘But it doesn’t have to be that way. A tin of sardines in tomato sauce, for example, can be an excellent addition to a pasta dish, but costs next to nothing. And if you forgo the more expensive fish, such as Dover Sole, for something like Witch, you’ll  be amazed at how comparable it actually is in taste, for a fifth of the price. If you as9k (some of the Billingsgate merchants, they’d pick Witch over Sole every time.’

 

7. It takes too long to cook.

‘Fish is the ultimate fast food. A fillet of white fish can be cooked to perfection, in a microwave, in a minute and a half. Tell me something that’s as nutritious, or quicker.’ We’ve had a think, and she’s right, we can’t.

 

8. It’s too difficult to plan ahead.

‘Don’t rubbish frozen fish; often, you’re getting a better product for a decent price, and it can be as last-minute as you like, in some cases,’ says CJ. ‘I once did a taste of frozen at sea cod versus cod from the wet fish counter. The former won, hands-down. It tends to be cheaper, and the perfect standby. The only possible pitfall is it’s a little easier to overcook it, but let it defrost in the fridge for a few hours, and, if you’re nervous, cook it in the microwave, covered in clingfilm. Think about it; frozen-at-sea fish is blasted at -40C a couple of hours after it’s caught. That’s going to be a lot fresher than something caught then kept in a fridge for a few days before you freeze it at home in your -18C freezer.’

 

9. The kids don’t like it.

We know that omega 3 is good for all the family, but the bolder flavours of oily fish can be a bit off-putting for younger children. ‘With my own son, it’s about mixing the unfamiliar with the familiar. So for a snack, I’ll mix mackerel with cream cheese to make a pate, or break up some tinned fish into a tomato sauce to serve with pasta - I’d never whizz it so it’s so tiny he doesn’t notice - that’s tantamount to lying. But I will pair it with things he like to balance the taste. And I never given him big portions of it. He likes smoked salmon, but just a little at a time means he’s never overwhelmed by the flavour. The more you can get them to eat before the age of 10, the better.’

 

10. Bored of the usual suspects.

There are six big sellers; salmon, cod, sea bass, prawns, haddock and tuna. ‘We have up to 150 species in the market each day, so if you know what you like, but want to ring the changes, just ask for something similar but different. If you like cod, try coley; instead of squid, buy cuttlefish, and if you prefer flat fish, then give megrim or witch a go rather than buying plaice. There’s absolutely no reason to get stuck in a rut if you just let someone advise you on what to try next.’
 

For more information on #seafoodweek, visit Seafish. For more information on Billingsgate Seafood Training School courses, click here


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