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Antony Shirley at the Seafood Pub Company on why you should eat more fish

PUBLISHED: 09:21 20 October 2014 | UPDATED: 21:28 19 January 2016

Mackerel with heritage tomatoes

Mackerel with heritage tomatoes

Archant

We are surrounded by sea but surprisingly conservative about the fruits of the ocean

Antony with the finished dishAntony with the finished dish

As a maritime race, we are never more than 70-odd miles from the sea. Why then, are we so reticent with it comes to eating fish?

Just during the course of gathering information for this feature, photographer Kirsty Thompson had to be reassured that the toothy beast grinning back at her from a kitchen dish was not an alien, but a monkfish.

True, they are not a pretty sight (the fish, not photographers) but in the right hands they are capable of being turned into a culinary wonder.

Many of us are not so frightened of the look but the level of difficulty we perceive is involved in cooking them. We are also terribly conservative about what we will eat, which is why much of the good stuff goes abroad.

The finished dish of sea bass with musselsThe finished dish of sea bass with mussels

Antony Shirley, executive chef for the Seafood Pub Company, says there is a clear division in preferences even in Lancashire. It’s cod down by the coast and haddock as you get further inland.

But he does admit that people are becoming more adventurous when it comes to eating, if not cooking. ‘We are selling a lot more oysters and people are having their tuna rare, even tuna tartare.’

We spent an hour with Antony in the kitchen of the Assheton Arms at Downham as he showed us a couple of fish dishes. But first, what should we be looking for when we go the shops?

‘Fish should have bright eyes and there should be no smell, except the smell of the sea,’ says Antony. Ideally, they should also still be a little slimy, a natural state that protects them in the water.

‘Build a relationship with your fishmonger and buy things that are in season. Mother Nature knows best – produce that arrives together tends to go together,’ he adds.

‘And when it comes to cooking fish, keep it simple. Put it under the grill with some butter and seasoning. It’s not as showy as using a frying pan, but it cooks beautifully. I don’t know how long Rick Stein has been cooking fish but I do know he still grills his fish.

Antony admits that fish can be a little unforgiving and you need to keep an eye on it because there aren’t too many second chances.

‘Look out for recipes that bake it in parchment. That’s quite straightforward too. Fish is incredibly versatile – it’s the original fast food.’

It arrives at the Assheton Arms from Fleetwood’s Chris Neve each day at 10.30am. ‘By lunchtime it’s on the menu. We never know for sure what we are going to get but, as they say in the supermarkets, once it’s gone, it’s gone.’

As we chatted, Antony poured a little rapeseed oil and sprinkled some Maldon salt over the skin of a mackerel fillet and placed it under a hot grill. ‘Some chefs have started doing this with a blow torch,’ he says.

He placed it skin side up and allowed it to blister. It tends to curl up but it should recover its shape away from the heat. ‘It takes between three and five minutes depending on the size, you can almost see it cooking through.’

Antony served it with heritage tomatoes, some capers and a little lemon to finish it off. Simple but delicious.

He was a little more adventurous with his sea bass dish. He started off by stripping the scales with a knife, scoring the skin to aid presentation and to cook more evenly.

He put rapeseed oil in a frying pan and added shallots, put sea salt on the fish and placed it face down in the pan with some chopped garlic and white wine. This poached for three or four minutes and he added a handful of mussels, parsley, tomatoes and a little more wine or water plus some halved cherry tomatoes and parsley.

The pan was covered to allow the mussels to cook (they should open) and then add a few sliced pre-boiled new potatoes. The dish is served with a squeeze of lemon.

‘I recently went to the European Seafood Expo in Belgium and it proved to me without a doubt that we have the best fish in the world,’ says Antony. ‘It made me forever grateful for what we have available.’

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