As an island nation, you would think we would all embrace the bounty of our surrounding seas and have fish on our dinner tables every other night.
Instead, the persistent fear of buying and cooking fish has had many of us sticking to meaty mains at home, maybe only getting our seafood fix when dining out with the dish in the capable hands of a chef.
If sourcing good seafood is the thing standing in the way for you, ordering online from some of the best fishmongers in the country has never been easier, partly thanks to the pandemic. Check out Glenmar Seafood in West Cork, Galway’s Gannet Fishmongers and seafood guru Niall Sabongi’s Sustainable Seafood Ireland, all of which deliver exceptionally high quality catch nationwide.
With lockdown here to stay for another while, it is time to tackle our fears and cook more fish at home, starting with some simple but classic seafood dishes and building up confidence to veer towards more adventurous takes on traditional winning combinations.
If you absolutely don’t cook with fish as a rule, a great starting point is a comforting, straight forward Seafood Chowder. No fear of a fillet flaking apart into a mess and sticking to the pan, less time spent worrying about precision cooking and a seriously hearty crowd pleaser at the end for your efforts.
The variations are endless, include whatever fish you love and it is just a matter of poaching in hot stock until cooked through, then swirling in a very generous helping of double cream to bring it all together into a decadent stoup – chunky, hearty and flavour packed to the point where it really does verge on stew territory.
This Salmon, Smoked Haddock and Pea Chowder Recipe by Rachel Allen is an excellent starting point, even simpler than a traditional New England roux-based chowder, with the richness of salmon and depth of flavour from smoked haddock, plus sweet peas to contrast. Your potatoes are cooked along with the chowder, so it really is a meal in a bowl.
Shake up this base recipe by adding bacon at the start when sweating down the leeks in butter or mixing up the different types of seafood or adding some shellfish. Clams would make our Boston cousins content, but prawns or mussels are perfect additions for a decadent twist. Switch up peas for sweet corn and even add a dash of sherry, white wine or cognac right at the end of cooking for added pizzazz.
A classic example of a dish people love to order when dining out but will rarely attempt at home is traditional Moules Mariniére – and it is so much easier to nail at home than you think!
I can barely type the name of the dish without my mouth watering and daydreaming of a steaming hot, garlicky pot of these beauties by the sea. Nowadays, we need that kind of evocative escape more than ever.
Irish mussels are among the best in the world, with our pristine waters producing world class shellfish packed with flavour, and they are extremely budget friendly too.
For Moules Mariniére, the key is steaming your mussels in a white wine and cream liquor which is later mopped up with plenty of bread. I suggest going one better and adding bacon for an extra flavour hit and to entice any mussel naysayers at the table, as in this Middle of the Table Mussels Recipe with Bacon by Chef Brian McDermott.
Prawns Pil Pil
Yet another one of those dishes capable of mentally transporting us to sunnier climes, Prawns Pil Pil is heaven in a little terracotta clay pot.
Such a simple and ingredient low dish, like so many other seafood classics, relies on the sourcing the best possible prawns and doing very little with them. I long for the day I can get my fix again in the Old Spot in Dublin, but until then this easy at home version will keep me going.
I adore shell-on prawns for this, but plump peeled and most importantly, raw, king prawns are the easiest way to get some practice in, skip the mess and whip up a cracker of a prawn dish for 2-3 people in mere minutes.
Add 100ml of olive oil into a saucepan on a high heat until almost smoking. In goes 500g of peeled prawns to cook for 2 minutes or until no longer translucent – don’t be tempted to leave them linger much longer than this or risk veering into rubbery territory. You could add some thick, diced chorizo at this stage also, but the dish doesn’t need it.
Finally, saving the best until last to avoid burning it, add your finely sliced garlic (in my case 4 fat ones gives the intense hum I’m after), a chopped fresh red chilli (I leave the seeds in, adjust accordingly for your desired level of fire), a scant 1/2 tsp of dried chilli flakes and a squeeze of lemon and cook for a further minute.
Serve in slightly warmed ceramic bowls (we don’t want the prawns to continue cooking) with some chopped parsley and plenty of crusty bread. The best seafood dishes come with the promise of this final greedy mopping…bliss.
Any White Fish and Hollandaise
Hollandaise is one of those master sauces that can genuinely transform a dish from bland to brilliant. How could it not be, in all its buttery glory? White fish in particular needs that fatty flavour injection, both during cooking and serving up.
The humble hake, haddock, or any firm white fish fillet (the thicker the better) will come into its own with such treatment. I have yet to come across a food that isn’t bettered by dunking in unctuous hollandaise.
First, make your sauce: place 2 egg yolks in a bowl over a pan of simmering water, whisk over the heat before adding a 2 tsps of white wine vinegar. The most important step: *gradually* whisk in 150g butter (a good salted one), cut into cubes and popped in one at a time, only adding the next once the last has melted.
Once your sauce has started to thicken, stir in a squeeze of lemon and season to taste with sea salt and white pepper, or black if you don’t mind flecks in your glossy beauty of a sauce. Quickly remove the saucepan from the hob, release some steam and place the bowl back on top so the sauce stays warm as you cook your fish.
Next, season your fillets on both side and rub with oil, then place in a hot pan for 2 minutes, add a knob of butter and flip to cook for a further two on the other side (depending on the thickness of your fillet), basting with a spoon as you go.
Serve with boiled baby potatoes, chunky chips or your green veggie of choice for a fish supper that delivers far more on the flavour front than it has any right to. Bonus: you can now make your own Eggs Benny at home with your new hollandaise skills.
Seared Tuna Salade Nicoise
Oh to be in the South of France, dining al fresco, with a glass of Provence Rosé in hand. In this sunny little daydream of mine, the dish before me is invariably a classic Salade Nicoise.
I love a thick, quickly seared tuna fillet in all contexts, but this combination seems to make it shine as a star ingredient even more. All the tuna steak it needs is a bare kiss of the heat on each side in a screaming hot pan, a minute or so, before resting and slicing.
The juicy steak is then propped atop a French dressing-coated tumble of perfectly toothsome green beans, sweet tomatoes, a pop of black olive and anchovy salinity and earthy boiled baby potatoes. Finished luxuriously with (slightly soft for me) boiled egg, Nicoise is a delight from first bite to last.
I love this five star quail’s egg Salade Nicoise recipe from The Marker Head Chef Gareth Mullins, and highly recommend capitalising on the first sunny Spring day by migrating outside with this dish and a drop of Whispering Angel alongside. Santé.
WRITTEN BY DARINA COFFEY