Nigel Slater: Fish on fry day

The kitchen is thick with the smell of grilling fish, its silver skin caught black on the ridges of the cast-iron pan, and blue-grey smoke is billowing through the kitchen door to the garden beyond. There's a sting in the air that catches the throat and eyes. The delicious sting of smoke, sea salt and lemons. God, I love this job.

This summer has been a feast of mackerel (a snip at barely two quid apiece), sardines with their big flavours and little bones, and whitebait, which I buy frozen, shake in salt and peppered flour and chuck into hot oil. If I'm feeling flush I'll pick up a red mullet. When it hits the grill, the smell that ensues is as good as a holiday in the south of France. Even more so if you toss tiny, shiny black olives into the pan and have a bottle of very cold rosé to hand.

One supper I have had about half a dozen times this summer involves nothing more complicated than warming hunks of lemon in a little olive oil in a shallow pan till they colour and soften, then laying gutted whole sardines in the pan with them. The fish cook in a minute or two, and end up scented with the lemon. Sea salt, crusty bread and a glass or two of white wine turns this into a neat little supper.

The downside has been all the bones - the coat hangers that give these fishes their elegant torpedo shape and stop them collapsing into a slimy blob. That's why I love whitebait so much, you just scrunch the immature bones as if they were Twiglets. Fish bones have never had many fans, and are the main reason for people not eating more piscine suppers.

If you run your knife along the backbone of a cooked fish, then retrace your steps with the blade almost flat, you can slide the soft flesh neatly away from the bones. It is one of those small kitchen jobs that gives immense pleasure and partly makes up for all those jobs that don't, like fishing yukky bits out of the plughole. It's so easy to do and puts paid to whingeing by those who like fish, but won't eat it because of the bones. You can do this with trout, salmon and red mullet. Flat fish such as sole and plaice are even easier because the bones are so obvious and widely spaced. Exceptions are the tiny fish such as sardines and anchovies whose bones are more like hairs. To spot these you need either the eye of a kestrel or enough cash to tempt your fishmonger into doing the job for you. Yet somehow I can overlook these little failings. The bones are a pest, but they are part of the deal. Thorns have never stopped us loving the rose.

A salad of red mullett with lime and ginger

A starter should sharpen and excite the appetite. This recipe does exactly that. Serves 2 as a light lunch, 4 as a starter.

2 red mullet, filleted
50ml white-wine vinegar
120ml lime juice (3 to 4 limes)
4 lime leaves
a small carrot
a small onion
a small clove of garlic
a small, fresh red chilli, seeded and very finely sliced
palm sugar
2 whole star anise
1 tsp coriander seed
10 white peppercorns
8 black peppercorns
80ml olive oil
a small knob of fresh ginger - about 1cm long
a little parsley, quite finely chopped
triangles of rye bread, to serve

Pour the wine vinegar and the lime juice into a stainless-steel saucepan. Add the lime leaves, scrunching them slightly to release their fragrance as you go. Scrub the carrot and slice it as finely as paper - you should almost be able to see through it - then peel the onion and slice that similarly. Drop them into the pan together with the garlic, peeled and squashed flat (you just want the merest whiff), the chilli, a teaspoon of palm sugar (though you may need to add more later) and the star anise, coriander seed and white peppercorns. Bring the lot to the boil, add a good pinch of salt, eight black peppercorns, then pour in the olive oil and let the mixture simmer for a minute or to. You want the onion to have softened slightly. Turn the heat off, leave the lid on and let the mixture settle.

Warm a little olive oil in a non-stick pan. Season the red mullet fillets with salt and black pepper and lay them skinside down in the hot olive oil. Seal them - keep the heat high and let the skin colour, then turn them over and let them colour on the other side. Lift them from the pan with a fish slice and place them on a shallow dish.

Grate the ginger into the marinade and stir in the parsley. Taste it, then add a little more palm sugar if you think it needs it. It should have a little kick to it. Spoon it over the fish and leave to cool.

Lift the fish on to plates and spoon over the vegetables and liquor. Serve with triangles of rye bread, buttered if you must.

Grilled squid with thyme and lime juice

I have always seasoned grilled fish with either thyme and lemon juice or coriander and lime. Sometimes rules are for breaking and this is one instance where I found myself breaking my own. We ate this as a light supper with some bread to mop up the juices, but I could have done with some chips, too. Serves 2.

a large, juicy clove of garlic
a handful of thyme sprigs
2 tbsps olive oil
450g cleaned squid (body sacs and tentacles)

For the dressing:

the juice of 2 limes
2 tbsps olive oil
the leaves of a couple of sprigs of thyme
Maldon sea salt flakes

Peel the garlic and crush it to a paste with a pestle and mortar. Strip the leaves from the thyme and mash them into the garlic with the olive oil to give a smoothish dressing.

Give the squid a good once over, removing any stray bits of gut or slime the fishmonger has left behind, and rinse thoroughly. Shake it dry, then cut each sack down the side so that it opens out flat. Take a very sharp knife and score the flesh on one side in a crisscross fashion, but not so deep that you cut all the way through. Turn the squid in the garlic marinade and set aside for a good 30 minutes, or longer.

Make the dressing in a small basin or a screw-top jar by mixing the lime juice, olive oil and thyme leaves together.

Get a ridged griddle hot. Lay the pieces of squid on the ridges and let it grill for a few seconds on each side. It will probably roll itself up into beautiful white curls. Remove it as soon as it is lightly coloured here and there from the grill bars (just a minute or two) and divide between two plates. Tip over the dressing and sprinkle with flakes of Maldon sea salt. Eat while all is hot and sizzling.

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