Regular columnist Ed Smith on buying seafood on a budget
I’ve long felt that this column could, technically, be filled with instructions to cook pretty much any meal from scratch using a variety of Market ingredients. Even the most prime fillets of beef, whole turbots, vacherin mont d’or, jamon Iberico and native oysters—all are a better, savvier treat when procured from Borough’s traders and prepared at home than they are when bought at a restaurant.
Moreover, any ingredient cooked by your own fair hands will go further and be better value than ready-made meals or pre-prepared sauces ever will. But I suspect you know all that already; and I wouldn’t have got much mileage from this topic if I took this approach.
Instead, what I try to do as I wander round the Market is think what ingredients might be too easily overlooked; what ingredients go a surprisingly long way; and what ingredients might characterise thrifty luxury. Ultimately, what provides brilliant value?
The fruits of our seas
The fish counters are surely an obstacle for many of us. Despite being an island, we’re no longer a nation that’s confident when it comes to cooking the fruits of our seas. There’s a fear, I think (and it’s understandable), that we’ll mess up anything other than the usual fillet of salmon.
What’s more, to ruin a nice piece of fish would be terrible because, crumbs, isn’t it expensive? And the fact those glistening creatures are all labelled with a per kilo weight (£15, £20, £30 per kg and more?!) isn’t helpful, is it, because, arghghgh, how much do we need?
The truth is that fish and seafood is often a smart option for the savvy shopper. Just 80-120g of fish flesh per person will do fine for a main course (less than meat). And if you’ve got the bones too, well, that doubles up as a means of making amazing stock for another meal. If you ask the fishmonger nicely, they might even let you take away a few extra ‘frames’.
Packed with flavour
If you’re looking to spend only a few pounds on amazing seafood, start with shellfish—bivalve molluscs like clams, whelks and mussels, especially. I know some who might think that there’s little return once you discount the shells. But, actually, the contents of those shells are packed with flavour and are among the most nutritious foods available.
Mussels, in particular, are extraordinarily good for us—packed with minerals and fatty acids, plus hosting levels of iron and protein on a par with red meat. They’re surprisingly filling too. 1kg (including shell weight) is the standard recommendation for four portions. Which is handy, because 1kg will only set you back about £5.
I know, then, as I stand staring at Furness Fish & Game, that I’m going to get a bag of mussels for this evening. How to cook and eat them, though? I love them simply steamed in a glass of wine or beer, along with a few aromatics (onion, garlic, parsley stems). Quick and fulfilling—the ultimate fast food.
So this is tempting, perhaps with some homemade soda bread to mop up the juices. But it’s cold at the moment, isn’t it? How about a soup-cum-stew, with a few other hearty fillers to really ensure my cockles are warmed (if you’ll excuse the shellfishy pun).
I take a quick step over to Turnips to think things through, and realise that a root vegetable and leek soup, bolstered by the flesh and cooking juices of mussels, is exactly the thing I’m looking for: filling, satisfying and unquestionably savvy.