How to catch fish and cook it – Alistair McGlashan

For the freshest fish you'll ever taste

By Charles Lewis
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Teaching children not only how to fish but what species are sustainable.

Teaching children not only how to fish but what species are sustainable.

Perfectly cooked and well presented fish
How to catch fish and cook it by Alistair McGlashan
Fishing off the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria.
Surf fishing for the family, NSW


How to catch fish and cook it is to my knowledge a unique book in that it covers catching, caring for and cooking a wide variety of sea fish – fifty species in all, Australia-wide. It is ambitious in this respect, but not at all intimidating, and does it well.

However an early inconsistency is that the foreword emphasises catch and release yet this book is about catch, cook and eat. Not too many seem to get away.

The focus of the first few pages is on looking after your fish as soon as it is caught; bleeding and icing them down and not leaving fish lying around in the sun to spoil, or flapping on deck where their muscles become damaged. So often the quality of fish is ruined in the first hour after catching by leaving them in the bottom of an aluminium dinghy, in the sun or even covered. This book attempts to stop this sacrilege. We never go fishing without an ice-slurry filled Eski (ice box, or chilly bin to New Zealanders) solely for this purpose. Keep your drinks in another.

Good quality fish treated correctly and cooked well is superb. Look after the fish then serve it fresh is the author's basic message. In addition to providing the basis for a better meal, this saves considerable wastage and hopefully might help reduce the pressure on wild fish stocks.

Chemical and bacterial spoilage of fish begins as soon as it is caught, and is far more rapid than in red meat. The protein content of fish is halved in a surprisingly short period of time. By following the advice in this book the deterioration in fish quality and nutritional value can be minimised and allow the fisherman to present fish on the table in superior condition to that purchased at the vast majority of fish shops.

There are also standard techniques on how to fillet the more common species of flathead (with skin left on and without) and kingfish.

How to catch fish and cook it then proceeds to provide information on the major species caught by recreational sea fisherman around the Australian coastline. Important locations for each species are included. When to fish, fishing techniques, tackle to use and ‘hot spots’ are also covered. Due to the wide-ranging nature of the book, the latter are necessarily limited but it’s an introduction to good areas to fish, especially useful if you are travelling.

It's well-informed, to the point, and useful for the novice and experienced angler alike.

However there is scant mention of sustainable catch levels. A quick look at McGlashan’s website reveals a significant distaste for further marine parks, at least in Queensland waters – maybe he needs to go fishing in Asia or the Mediterranean to see how hard it is to catch fish where fish breeding grounds are unprotected. Recent introduction by local fishermen of concrete ‘fish houses’ – with a dual purpose, to provide breeding habitat and studded with enormous metal hooks to deter illegal netters – off the Tuscan coast have seen a large increase in recreational and traditional commercial catches. Let’s hope it does not get to that point in Australia. It’s easier and cheaper to conserve than attempt to rebuild fish stocks, as no doubt North Sea fishermen could testify.

My own rule is catch only what you can eat. Sure, freeze a few but you sure don’t need to take home 50 – let them live and swim for another day and allow someone else enjoy the pleasure of a catch, too. Selling the surplus at the local pub might buy you a few drinks on the tax man, but it sure as anything knocks around the local fish supply. Try explaining that to your kids when they catch nothing.

And of course stick carefully to size limits – which don’t get much of a mention in this book either, perhaps because they vary between States – they are carefully based on the breeding age and size of the fish at sexual maturity, and taking undersized specimens might not only lose you your licence, boat and tackle but again lead to rapid local fish extinction.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society, which was presciently formed back in the 1960s to research and protect fish species, has produced a ‘red list’ of fish that it considers should not be caught in the wild until stocks have sufficiently recuperated. These are: blue warehou, gemfish (aka hake), orange roughy, oreodory, redfish, sharks (‘flake’) and skate, silver trevally, Southern bluefin tune and swordfish.

Reassuringly most are absent from How to catch fish and cook it, with the exceptions of silver trevally (which McGlashan describes as ‘a common recreational species’, although this may be another species with the same common name), Southern bluefin tuna and swordfish. Marlin and sailfish also gets a look in – most of these game fish are now released, but swordfish despite being exceptional in texture for eating can be contaminated with mercury, so it’s probably safer for you and the fish to release it, too.

Stocks of Southern bluefin tuna McGlashan acknowledges as ‘critical … and probably … endangered’ but his view is that they are making a comeback and are thus worthy of pursuit by recreational fishermen. As fine a sport (although not as good as yellowfin) and as good a sashimi as this fish makes, I’ve rarely seen a fisherman make effective use of even part of his or her catch – the wastage of this animal can be appalling. Can you and your friends really eat or freeze this much fish?

Hilary McNevin in her recent book Guide to Fish also lists 11 additional species about which to ‘think twice before you buy (or catch) these wild species too often’. They’re not in trouble yet, except perhaps in localised areas, but they might soon be. These are: barramundi, blue-eye trevalla, blue grenadier, coral trout, grouper, John Dory, mackerel, pink ling, red emperor, snapper, tailor, West Australian dhufish and Yellowfin tuna. Most are included in How to catch fish and cook it. Let’s just say: fish responsibly.

Following each species’ description is a recipe for one method of cooking it. Initially I thought this book was a modern sharing between the sexes of cooking (and fishing), until I reached the author’s words: ‘Alistair teams up with his mates and goes fishing, while his wife Rachel prepares easy to cook and scrumptious recipes’. Rachel is frequently described as a ‘fishing widow’. At least her recipes are post the 1960s.

Our household is far more egalitarian, and as a male fisherman and like my father before me I am more than prepared to give cooking my catch (or my wife’s or daughter’s) a good go – indeed this book is very bloke-friendly in that department and despite the author’s statement may well become a man’s bible for fish cookery. Thank you, Rachel, and the friends who have generously contributed.

The recipes are relatively simple yet quite varied in type, which avoids repetition. Most let the fish do the talking. I love for example the recipe for King George whiting fillets – just cook with butter and lemon juice. How often many species would benefit from this simple treatment, perhaps with a grind of black pepper – the Italians might also add a dash of good olive oil – than masked with some inappropriate sauce which is really more suited as a disguise for poor quality (read poorly handled) fish.

For me if you have freshly caught, well handled fish – the simpler the better. Be careful not to mask good flavour and texture with an excess of ingredients, unless you have a firm textured, strong flavoured fish to curry.

The recipe index is somewhat hard to find - they are not in the main index at the rear but on the reverse of the contents page (p 4). Recipes don’t consistently follow the species (for example you can look up leatherjacket and the associated recipe is for ling). However many are adaptable and particularly delicious-sounding ones include steamed Chinese snapper or bream (p 24), whiting as above (p 45), marinaded smoked tailor (maybe try on a less vulnerable species, p 67) and several of the fish dipping sauces (p 68),  smoked Australian salmon with pasta (p 83), curried fish in foil (p 112), coriander crumbed kingfish (p 128),  Rachel’s kid-friendly fish pie and patties (p 152 and p 230), fish steaks with parmesan (p 182), fish curries (p 198, 206 and 236), seafood stir fry (p 214), raw kingfish and poki (p 223 and 244), the lime marinade on p 259 (which would work well on other firm fish than tuna), Thai-style steamed ocean trout (not exactly a recreational fish unless you live in Tasmania; p 274) and fish and spinach with olive basil sauce (p 306, but try on a less toxic species).

There are also recipes for smoked fish and gravlax, tips on how to best freeze fish - not all species freeze well - and a very useful chart on p 316 with McGlashan's recommendations for serving style and 'table rating'.

In this, Australian salmon are described as ‘crap’ from an eating viewpoint. I beg to differ. If smaller (0.5 kg) salmon are filleted, iced and eaten fresh or frozen in a small block of ice (we pack them in a 600 ml milk carton, fill with water and freeze), they are superb eating. They also make excellent paté (the best I have tried is sourced from a male professional fisherman, and yes - he makes it himself).

Maybe McGlashan is talking about bigger Australian salmon that are common around the mainland coastline. He insists they don’t rate as table fish but then says ‘they are terrific hot smoked’. I’ve had some beauties on the barbecue, too. McNevin gives three Australian salmon recipes in her book.

Overall, How to catch a fish and cook it is a very useful addition to an angler’s library. It covers its wide range well, and is copiously illustrated with fishing photos by (and of) the author and food shots by Graeme Gillies. To remain a practical size it is of necessity not fully detailed in all areas - if it were, the book would be unwieldy.

How to catch fish and cook it will also be welcome in the kitchen, particularly for those (perhaps men?) who find conventional recipe books boring or intimidating, or for people like me who enjoy relatively easy recipes and techniques. It brings fish cooking to life, and would make a great Christmas present for any keen recreational angler who would like to handle and cook his/her catch simply and well.

How to catch fish and cook it by Alistair McGlashan is published by New Holland Publishers (Sydney, 2009); hb RRP A$45. and Winepros archive subscribers and Members can purchase How to catch fish and cook it from our online book partners, Seekbooks, at a 12.5% discount (postage extra).

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November 02nd, 2009
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