In the cookbook realm, turning out consistently great books has a downside: We expect more of publishers like the River Cottage and Phaidon. The River Cottage's Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, here with co-author Nick Fisher, a seafood journalist and avid fisherman, does not disappoint with the new American edition of The River Cottage Fish Book, the best (600-page!) fish cookbook we have seen in years.
It's part cookbook, part seafood encyclopedia, really, as 200 of those pages are dedicated to a glossary of fish by species described in that signature (read: highly entertaining) River Cottage storytelling voice. And not just the what and where, but whether we should be eating the species, like conger eel, for sustainablility, taste and safety reasons:
"Every sea fisherman has a conger [eel] story to tell; some twisty tale of a huge, snapping eel with a head the size of a boiled ham, teeth so sharp they could fell a pylon, and the attitude of a Jack Russell with a wasp up its nose."
Yeah, we're seriously considering becoming a professional fisherman now, too, just for the horror-film fun of it.
And if you happen to actually catch a conger eel, manage to get it on the boat, and find that the hook has not done excessive damage (the authors give plenty of reasons not to kill congers, including they mate only once in a lifetime), there is a pork- and apple-stuffed roasted conger eel recipe here, too. It comes with those refreshingly honest River Cottage warnings (Eat only the middle, as the tail-end stinks) followed by gushing praise (The center flesh is "moist and full of flavor, and the juices make a lovely rich gravy"). Ah, that British Keeping Up Appearances knack for making brutal honesty hilariously appetizing.
We love this book not just for the tone and conger eel enlightenment, but for the recipes, which bring together simple cooking techniques with flexible seafood ingredients, depending on what fish you have on hand (Thai crab and fish soup, a seafood pancake gratin, warm smoked fish and sausage salad) as well as fish-specific ones (baked mackerel with cider and apples, whelk fritters, cockle chowder).
There is even a "Fish Thrift and Standbys" recipe chapter offering up ideas for what to do with those Pollock heads (roast them with thyme and garlic) and skeletons (roast with garlic and rosemary; "Dispense with cutlery and allow all your nibbling and gnawing instincts to take over").
Other basics include how to make sushi, preserve fish in salt, smoke fish and, yes, quickly and humanely kill a fish with a truncheon to the head once you get it on the boat: "One blow will usually be enough, but two, in rapid succession, is belt and suspenders."
In other words, how to handle every potential deep-sea or riverfront fishing and seafood cooking situation (many of the tales in the book come from the authors' own fishing adventures), with the overriding reminder to treat these animals with respect. The essay on killing a fish is followed by one on the hows and whys of properly returning an undamaged fish to the ocean ("good for future fish stocks, future fish sports and future fish suppers").
We leave you with one of our favorite recipes in the book, for obvious recycled-newspaper reasons: Trout wrapped in wet newspaper and grilled whole. "This is a very nifty way of cooking over a fire or grill, and a great by-the-river or on-the-beach improvisation for fish you've caught."
It's so nifty, in fact, that we were able to sum up the original recipe into just a few backpacking-appropriate prose paragraphs. How much newspaper do you need? That depends. "Three sheets for a tabloid, two for a regular-sized newspaper."
Trout Newspaper Parcels
Adapted From: The River Cottage Fish Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher
Serves: As many fishermen as you have, depending on how many fish you catch.
Bay leaves or thyme sprigs
1. Place a whole, gutted and cleaned trout (one 14-ounce trout per person, or a 1 3/4-pound trout to serve two) on the sheets of newspaper, tucking a bay leaf and/or thyme sprig in the belly and another underneath the fish. "Put a few scraps of butter on top of the fish and inside it, then season it well with salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice," then wrap it up like a "snug, secure parcel."
2. Soak the newspaper packages in water so they are thoroughly wet and grill, over a "fiercely hot" fire (make sure the grate over the grill has heated up), for 15 minutes until the "newspaper is blackened, charred and starting to burst into flame (if the paper catches fire sooner than you'd like, sprinkle it with water so you can continue cooking)."
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3. "Unwrap the parcels carefully, trying to prevent the newspaper ash from falling on the fish flesh. Serve right away with whatever accompaniments you can muster."
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