The dab is, along with the flounder, apparently widely considered the ugly duckling of flatfish, and that’s not because it’s going to grow up into a beautiful swan any time soon. That seems harsh, and not just because, let’s face it, the other members of the flatfish family hardly have much to write home about in the looks department, either, but also because there’s nothing at all wrong with the dab in the flavour department – and that’s the important thing here. In fact I’d go so far as to say the dab tastes really very good indeed, by no means blatantly inferior, in either flavour or texture to the more commonly eaten and highly regarded varieties of sole, and I’d suggest rather superior to most plaice I’ve ever eaten (although that is, of course entirely a matter of personal opinion, utterly subjective and entirely dependent on the quality of the fish and the cooking)
One distinct – and objectively demonstrable – advantage that dab has over its more celebrated brethren is that it is, as a direct consequence of the low regard in which it is held, cheap. Very cheap. Becca and I were up on the Suffolk coast for the weekend, and came back with four dab, on account of the fishmonger reckoning one each was not enough for a meal (they are quite small) but they still set us back less than three quid.
And yes, these dab were bought from a harbourside shack, and thus, in theory at least more or less direct from the fisherman, with minimal transport and middleman costs, so you might well expect them to be cheaper here than they might be if they showed up on your neighbourhood fishmongers slab, or even (the chance’d be a fine thing) in your local supermarket. But I have to say, in my experience, that fish bought from the harbourside shacks in Southwold at least, really isn’t a great deal cheaper than from my regular Stoke Newington fishmonger (although considerably so compared to Islington’s Nigel Slater endorsed and priced accordingly Steve Hatt’s).
The real advantage, of course, of the harbourside shack is:
A. that the fish is fresher, almost literally pulled straight from the sea. On several occasions we have been advised against buying the dover sole for dinner on the grounds of it being too fresh. And:
B. They have dab. Most regular fishmongers (if the word regular can be applied to fishmongers these days, any fishmonger at all being, sadly, such a rarity) don’t bother stocking them, on account of people not buying them, what with them being the ugly duckling of the flatfish world and all. There is of course a big fat slice of chicken and egg pie that goes along with that. I reckon if fishmongers did put dab on their slab, at anything like the price Becca and I paid in Southwold, then they’d find that there would be quite a lot of people prepared to buy it.
Which would be a good thing. Which brings me to the best thing of all about dab. This is a fish that the marine conservancy people actively want us to eat more of. A fish we can eat not only without even a hint of guilt souring the pleasure, but a dash of smug self-righteousness to season it. Yum. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, in the dab chapter of his fine Fish book, goes so far as to propose – somewhat satirically – the formation of an organisation he calls SPUDF, the Society for the Promotion and Understanding of Dabs and Flounders, which he seems to intend more for the promotion of eating than understanding the fish in question, but never mind. I wouldn’t go so far as to encourage you to join any kind of club, but if you are lucky enough to have a proper fishmonger near you, keep an eye out for dab on his slab, and if he doesn’t have any, ask him to get some in for you. You, and I suspect he, won’t regret it.
As for cooking it, like pretty much any fish, particularly any fish as fresh as these ones, it really couldn’t be simpler. Just dust in lightly seasoned flour and whack it in a good hot frying pan. A couple of minutes a side (always slightly longer on the first side than the second though) and straight on to the plate.
Becca and I also returned from Southwold with a small handful of foraged samphire. Beautifully tender and almost luminously bright green. These I dropped into the pan of boiling potatoes literally seconds, maybe thirty, before straining off the water. Then I seasoned them with the zest and juice of half a lemon (the other half to be served as wedges alongside the fish), a good splash of extra virgin olive oil and a grind of black pepper - probably not salt, as the samphire will bring enough of that to the table. Very simple, very delicious and, probably, actually cheaper than chips.
And contrary to the fishmongers advice a dab each was enough. More of a light supper than a hearty dinner, but still, it certainly didn’t seem worth frying up the extra fish once we’d polished off the first. Which left us with two small dab (the four we originally had came in two distinct sizes, two larger, two smaller) for the next day.
The next day we were having a house barbecue with our downstairs neighbours, and the two small dab obviously weren’t going to go far between the six people there. But I took Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall up on another of his suggestions, and made an improptu snack starter of dab sandwiches.
First I filleted the fish. I had thought that filleting flatfish, particularly small ones would be a difficult and fiddly thing. Nothing could be further from the truth. The skeleton of the dab is thick, platelike and almost plasticky in texture, and it both guides your knife and allows the flesh to slip from the bone like it’s designed to be non-stick. Each side of the fish yields two small, roughly triangular fillets. These I marinaded briefly in a squeeze of lemon and a little olive oil, then dusted, again, in lightly seasoned flour (a dash of paprika in there this time, along with salt and pepper) and grilled quickly on the barbeque. Each fillet went into half a warmed and split pitta, with a dab (sorry) of sorrel pesto, and went down really well.