Like a lot of people, I struggle to find an economical way of feeding large amounts of people with fish: it is rarely inexpensive and nor should it be bearing in mind the time and effort it takes fishermen and women to catch and land their bounty. I am a dab hand (sorry) at stretching a few fish into bright curries, mash topped pies and little round cakes hiding nuggets of melting cheese but for me, the ultimate luxury is a large white plate topped with a single perfect fish, prepared simply, served whole. And if you choose to serve sole or plaice, flounder, skate or brill (turbot, is sadly out of the question) to several diners then the pounds rack up: some of these are high end fish for high days and holidays and none are cheap as chips any more.
This is where the dab should take a bow. They are prolific breeders in the cold dark waters of the North Sea and around the UK in general and are capable of breeding within two years, when they are only fifteen centimetres long. A precocious ability to reproduce explains in part why dab are so numerous and they are also a reliable catch because they will apparently feed in both daylight and darkness, gliding silently onto sandy beaches, estuaries and anywhere where rock clusters and sandy bottomed gullies have attracted the sea creatures they, in turn, feed upon. Their price reflects this and when I visited a local fishmonger, Fish Burwell LTd in Newmarket, I bought a bag full of dabs at only £1,75 each for fish that weighed in just over a pound (usual for a sold dab). They were beautifully fresh- still in rigor- irridescent, splodged with marmalade coloured spots and I bought them as nature made them although they are a lot easier to fillet than roundfish if you wish to serve them in this manner.
On the fishmongers slab, you’ll notice it has beady dark eyes on the right side of its body and skin the colour of wet sand at Walton on the Naze. Take it home and rub your fingers over its uncooked flanks and you’ll feel a roughness like a kittens tongue, pushing against the pads of your fingertips. You can cook them with head and fins attached and they tolerate pan, grill, oven and flame happily, without breaking up- a result of that determined and pliable skin which makes great eating too. The flavour is rich – a result of their marine diet of prawns, molluscs, shellfish and small crustaceans- and the meat falls away from their cartilaginous skeleton with a light touch of the fork.
I’ve written before about how I think what we refer to as ‘trash fish’ will gain popularity as it becomes the marine equivalent of nose to tail eating and dabs are a prime example of an under rated commercial fish, often disposed of when caught as by-catch by trawlers although things are changing. The fishing industry has realised there is a need to create a market for dab and other by catch. In the past they’ve been regarded as little more than flotsam and jetsam, not worth landing and certainly not worth the fuel miles to port where they would no doubt have lingered behind unsold. However there is a long way to go as of yet, with skippers having to return to shore with their entire by-catch, regardless of whether it can be eaten or sold. This is a terrible waste of fish, time and fuel, especially when fishing crews report that some by-catch fish might well have survived a return to the sea. Ultimately, the inability to return under-sized fish to the seas can only harm future stocks. Even if the by-catch has perished, all is not lost as indigenous marine animals such as birds and other fish would eat the discarded fish or their carcasses would decompose on the ocean floor, releasing essential nutrients into the water and sea-bed.
The Sea Fisheries Protection Agency, DEFRA and the Marine Institute have all been working with people employed in the fishing industries to reduce the amount of undersized catches. The recommended strategies have included an increase in the size of the mesh in cod nets. From the first of January 2016, all whiting, haddock, prawns and hake will be subject to an extended ban on by-catch, as part of measures being phased in by the European Commission to tackle the problem of by catch which resulted from its previous quota system. However, this has its critics because Irish and British waters are heavily fished by fishing crews of boats registered to other mainland European countries. These can continue to catch the most lucrative fish whilst Irish and British vessels are moored in port because they have reached their quota of caught fish.
The Burwells fish team had this to say about the problem: “By catch is being reduced by a change in legislation allowing fishermen to land more product avoiding the need to throw by catch back into the sea. As a fishmongers we promote the use of less know fish on a daily basis.”
Asked about their own stock, they told me: “We stock fish such as Dabs, Hake, Gurnard on a regular basis along with a recipe for people to try it with. We believe that some of the lesser known varieties of fish hold a lot more flavour and are also lighter on the wallet too. We would like to see people eating more Hake, Gurnard, Red Fish, Whiting and Coley.” Certainly, whenever I visit, I enjoy that interaction, the chance to gain more knowledge about what I am buying, about what I ought to be eating more of and what could benefit from a ‘ piscine close season’ because stocks are getting a bit too low for comfort.
Much of what I do starts with something read in a book and my search for a nice little pan fish to take kindly to began with Katy Carr’s food adventures in Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did Next:
“Soles and muffins she finally decided upon and, as an afterthought, gooseberry jam. ‘Muffins sounds so very good in Dickens you know, she explained to Mrs Ashe, “and I never saw a sole.’ The soles when they came proved to be nice little pan fish, not unlike what in New England are called scup. All the party took kindly to them but the muffins were a great disappointment, tough and tasteless, with a flavour about them of scorched flannel.”
After reading What Katy Did Next, I laboured under the illusion that New England scups were the same as sole which were similar to what we call dabs- I was wrong. Properly known as Limanda Limanda, the dab is a member of the Flounder family and similar in appearance to the sole and plaice, which of course Katy Carr had already noted. The dab fitted the bill for our hungry and on the side of large, family. I was keen to serve whole fish too, because it has always been important for children to understand what ‘real’ fish look like and to not only eat it neatly filleted and parcelled up with all the trickier parts- head, fins, tail, skin- removed and disposed of lest they be too, um, ‘fishy’. But how best to cook it?
Keep it simple stupid is definitely the mantra here. I like the sound of the Fisherman’s Roll, made with the best of the catch and hence, little added bells and whistles are required, but it requires the dabs to be filleted and I wanted to serve them intact. If, however, you like the idea of this, then ask the fishmonger to fillet the dab and then dredge them in seasoned flour, fry in olive oil and serve in a buttered soft bap with a squeeze of lemon and liberal shakes of good salt and black pepper. Nigella’s soft white dinner rolls are a good match, otherwise look for pale flour covered baps sold in independent bakeries- the kind with a soft and spreading girth. In the USA, Parker House Rolls with their buttery glazed tops are delicious with fried fish or pair the sweet, fluffy Hawaiian rolls with the toothsome dab. Hawaiian rolls are yeast risen, enriched with milk, eggs and sugar and were introduced to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants who flocked there to work in the sugar plantations in the mid nineteenth century. It is a short and logical step to pair the sweet rolls with the fried fish that Portuguese people so love and together they compliment rather than overload the palate. Spread the rolls with a good unsalted butter, add a slice of tomato (choose Jack Hawkins if they are well ripened) and season the fish well. For those of you without access to Hawaiian bread, use brioche rolls sold in store for burgers- the kind with toffee coloured glazed tops. (Aldi and Waitrose both sell good versions or ask your local indy baker if they make them.)
Fish Burwells LTD enjoy a dab or six and although most of their stock tends to be sold to older customers, there is a decent demand for them locally. The fish team recommend serving them tapas style, using a paillard technique to flatten the fillets out even more before spreading with smoked salmon pate, rolling, eggwashing and shallow frying each one. I’ve seen a more complicated version of this 18th century dish cooked by Chef Michel Roux Jnr from Le Gavroche, who stuffed a Dover sole with lobster before frying in a similar manner. The dish can also be made with trout which was one of the signature dishes of Chef Charles Elme Francatelli who was a pupil of Carême and maitre d’hotel and chief cook to the Queen. (From Francatelli’s Modern Cook, 1886 edition.)
We prepared ours simply in two different ways. First off, the classic pan fry in brown butter after a dredge with seasoned flour, swiftly cooked and tipped onto a plate with little more than a lemon half, plenty of black pepper and Maldon salt. The light flour crust tightens around the flesh as it cooks and the pan juices become deliciously enriched with that nutty, crunchy flour residue. The juices can be sopped with white bread- and it must be white bread to give you that soft deep crumb which becomes deliciously sweet/ soggy when used to sandwich the fish. Secondly, we dusted the fish with powdered achiote (from Seasoned Pioneers if you are in the UK), added salt and a schmear of chipotle paste which can be either freshly made or in a jar from a deli, Waitrose or M&S. ( I use the Gran Luchito or Santa Maria brands in the UK.) The fish was then grilled until it developed a crisp, smoky carapace although you could just as easily pan fry it too. Remember to get the grill decently hot before sliding the fish under it on its protective bed of silver foil.
Achiote gives the fish a woody, earthy flavour very similar to the taste of the clay cooking vessels we ate from in Northern Mexico and the spice is geographically specific to Yucatan and Oaxacan cuisine, although our housekeeper had southern roots, meaning achiote became a regular feature of our northern cuisine. Also referred to as sázone, you can buy ready prepared packets of achiote without added MSG and it lends a vivid yellow-orange hue to foods. Sometimes it is sold as ground Saffron but you’ll know you’ve been had because of its inexpensive price tag. Combined with the schmear of chipotle (which is actually smoked and dried Jalopenos), the result is a deliciously rich and fruity smokiness which doesn’t overpower the dab and allows you to ramp up the accompaniments- maybe serve wrapped inside soft corn tortillas or piled inside fried taco shells with lime, avocado, fridge cool shredded salad and sliced jicama for a vegetal and much needed crunch?