Friday, 3 April 2009

Fish Isn't Just For Friday Anymore

For centuries, Christians have eaten fish on Fridays to remember Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s one of those religious traditions that seeped into secular life and to this day, even many non-Christians like to eat fish on Friday.

We’ve always eaten lots of fish in my family – although I must admit I struggle to get my son to eat it. He saw “Finding Nemo” when he was little and the “fish are friends, not food” thing has stuck with him. I was different. From the time I was a little girl, I loved fish. Growing up in a Christian home, I knew about the Friday tradition, but I would have happily eaten fish any day of the week. Unlike my own son, I made absolutely no connection between the pretty fish I saw in pictures of the ocean and the fish on my plate – until a family trip to Maine when I was three. It’s one of my first memories and it is as vivid as if I were there right this very minute.

My parents took me to a restaurant by the ocean, one they had been to before I was born. When we arrived, the owner insisted we go out round the back to see the cook. The kitchen had huge windows open to the beach, so it was like being outside. I was wearing a pretty dress and little sandals, and I can remember looking down at the wooden floor and feeling the sea breeze, a bit chilly against my bare arms in the early evening. The cook appeared seemingly out of nowhere. He was a big man, tall and quite heavy, with beefy arms and a full face. When he smiled his whole face creased up. I was a little afraid of him because he seemed very large but he was so friendly I tried not to be. He showed us huge tanks full of hard fishy things with claws. They looked kind of like crabs but different. Their claws were all taped shut and there were so many in the tanks they looked very uncomfortable. Everyone was oohing and aahing over them. The big man lifted me up to one of the larger tanks and asked me to choose two of them. I was not quite sure what I was choosing them for (hey, I was only three!) but I dutifully pointed out two of them. After that, we went back into the restaurant and my Mom ordered fish and chips for me. Strangely enough, the waitress already seemed to know what my parents were having. Before long, my fish and chips arrived, a huge oval plate full of fried fish and French fries. I was delighted. The waitress then went away and came back with two more plates with two things on them that looked remarkably like the fish I had chosen in the tank – but these ones were red. When I asked what they were, my Dad smiled and said I “sure was a good lobster picker”. I was mortified. When I asked why they were red he said it was because they were cooked in boiling water. This did not make me any happier.

Oddly enough after that experience, I grew up to be a bit of a fisherman – catching my first lake bass when I was just five years old. I was using what was supposed to be a toy rod and I remember feeling the fish pulling as it tried to get away. Aside from making sure I did not fall out of the boat, my Dad let me land it myself. It weighed five pounds. I was very proud, especially when my Dad filleted it and fried it up like only he could. He used to bread freshly caught fish and fry it up in an old skillet and it was, to this day, the best I have ever eaten. Fried fish is wonderful comfort food, especially if you bread it and fry it yourself like my Dad used to. Of course, frying is not the only way to cook fish. You can bake it, poach it, steam it, even stir fry it. And there are a lot more fish in the sea besides salmon and cod. From firm white hoki to delicate red mullet, there are so many delicious choices. And that’s before you get to lake fish. You don’t have to catch it yourself either. Fish is readily available in most supermarkets and some even have specialist fish counters now. If you have a specialist fish shop (or “fish monger” as they are known here in England) near to you, you really should take advantage of it. The staff there will be able to fillet your fish for you and recommend lots of delicious ways to cook it.

Actually fish is very easy to cook, and it is the original “fast food”. Seriously, if you have a piece of aluminum foil and some oil or butter, you can cook fish. Most fish fillets taste gorgeous if you just dot them with butter, lay them on a piece of foil, wrap the sides round like a little package and pop it in the oven on a baking tray at about 375°F or 160°C for between 15 and 25 minutes depending on how thick the fillet is. Of course, you can add seasonings, lemon and even a few drops of white wine to flavor the fish if you like. Stir frying fish is fast and easy too. Just heat up the olive oil, choose your favourite stir fry veggies, add the fish, stir fry, and you’ve got dinner!

Delicious and good for you, fish is low fat and low calorie, particularly if you poach, bake or steam it. Even fried fish can be relatively good for you if you use olive oil to fry it in and go easy on the breading. All fish has loads of valuable nutrients including protein. Of course, it is important to choose fish that has been sustainably caught. I also avoid farmed fish when I can as I don’t think anything that is intensively farmed can be as good for you or taste as good as something raised naturally.

Fish is a great freezer standby. Often frozen on the boat it is caught on, frozen fish is in many cases the freshest fish you can buy. Most of it cooks in minutes from frozen which means you can have dinner on the table in as little as a quarter of an hour if you serve it with lightly steamed frozen peas and rice or couscous.

I serve fish at least a couple times a week and the only fish I won’t cook is lobster. Although I do like the taste of it, I just can’t manage to cook it. That first experience really stuck with me. However, I find ways to get round that. About two years ago, when we were visiting my Dad in Canada, he mentioned that the local grocery store had fresh lobster. If you ordered it, they would cook it for you and you could just pick it up. Sure enough, we called up the store and they cooked three beautiful lobsters– one for Dad, one for me, and one for my husband. (My Mom and my son chose to eat chicken breast instead.) I will never forget the look on my Dad’s face as he ate that lobster. Man, did he enjoy that meal. I’m glad, because it was one of the last meals we all ate together round the family table. How strange that both of my first and last memories of my Dad involved fish, particularly lobsters. I think of him whenever I eat them - and lots of times in between.

Whether fish has been a part of your life for years as it has with me, or whether it will be a new addition to your diet, it is a wonderful healthy choice for you and your family. It definitely isn’t just for Friday anymore.

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