The Dab, The tastiest fish in the Sea?
Updated: Mar 26
The Dab, the tastiest fish in the Sea or Fisherman's tale?
Ok, I am simply craving it… I haven’t been fishing the whole of February as the weather has been horrendous. Snow storms and freezing temperatures have simply made fishing impossible. The River Crouch simply doesn’t fish in February, especially when all that cold fresh water is being continuously added to its flow. On top of that the dreaded Easterly wind sends the remaining fishing swimming in the direction of the deepest parts of the North Sea. The final nail in the coffin comes from my Dad who has been checking all of his local contacts they report.. Nothing is being caught!
I thought if I can not actually go chasing my quarry (and start to finally knock some fish of my new year’s target). At least I can write about them.. So I decided to write about the humble and in my eyes one of the most special fish in the sea... And one of my favourite wild foods, the Dab!
The Dab holds a special place with me for several reasons. Fishing as a child for Whiting the only other fish I would catch whilst piling in the Whiting was the small and humble Dab. The Dab maybe a small fish, but it has a big attitude! It is a voracious predator and feeds on brittlestars, small sea-urchins, hermit-crabs, amphipods, worms, molluscs and sand-eels. Its perfect camouflage is localised to its environment and makes it practically invisible whilst it stalks on the sea bed.
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Part of the Flounder family, the common dab has a similar appearance to both the plaice and the flounder - The major family resemblance is The Dab, like the Flounder has both eyes on the right-hand side of its body. The upper surface is usually pale brown in colour with scattered darker blotches and speckles, but the pectoral fins may can be shades of orange – depending on the local habitat. A distinguishing feature of The Dab is the lateral line; The Dab is marked by a distinctive semi-circular curve above the pectoral fin.
Although usually small, The Dab can reach 40 centimetres (16 in) in length and can weigh up to 2.2 lb the British record caught in 1975 weighed in at a massive 2lb 12oz!
In the River Crouch Dabs are with us virtually all year round but they are really in season from February into Early Winter (later if the Winter is mild!). The Dab - like most fish I am finding - are extremely localised!! Like the Herring of the River Crouch local populations of fish migrate in and out along the same channels returning to the same feeding grounds time and time again. Dabs do not have a huge range and can only be found around the UK, Scandinavia and Iceland - highlighted in dark blue on the map.
OK, so I started by saying the Dab is the tastiest fish in the Sea… I think it is certainly up there! There is a famous recipe for ‘The Dab’ and the clue to the Dabs flavour is in the name.. ‘The Fisherman’s roll’. The Fisherman’s roll is a simple dish – most Fishermen request their fish to be uncomplicated and still taste of the fish oh, and Fishermen always save the best of the catch for themselves!
So here it is.. It’s simply 3 or 4 delicate fillets of Dab rolled in a little seasoned white flour and fried in oil (use Olive Oil!) then served in a white bap with plenty of butter and a squeeze of lemon juice! Divine!
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What does the Dab fish taste like?
The flavour of the Dab is rich and if you eat it off the bone as I do the meat simply pulls of the large cartilaginous bones with the simple scrape of a fork. Its a simply delicious little fish, that is generous with flavour, and rich with the crabs and crustaceans that this humble little predator feasts on. I truly rate this as one of the most delicious fish available in the UK seas.
More ways to cook Dabs:
Dabs can be pan-fried, grilled, poached or cooked in a medium to low heat oven. To pan-fry dabs, heat a little oil in a frying pan and cook for 4-5 minutes on each side. To oven bake your dab, put well-seasoned fish in a shallow basin of water or stock and cook in a preheated oven of 180C.
Grilled Dabs with Garlic Butter and Brown Shrimps recipe:
4 whole dabs, dark skin scored
1 tbsp oil
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
½ lemon juiced
Bunch parsley, finely chopped
Small jar of brown shrimps
250g bag spinach
Get your grill hot. Cut the fins away from the sides of the dabs with scissors. Lay the fish on a baking tray, dark side up, drizzle with a little olive oil and season with sea salt. Place under a hot grill for 5 mins, until cooked through and the flesh comes away from the bone.
Meanwhile, for the brown butter garlic sauce, heat the butter in a frying pan until it starts to turn brown, then add the garlic and cook until it just starts to change colour as well. Remove the pan from the heat, squeeze in the lemon juice and add the chopped parsley and brown shrimps to gently warm through.
Finaly, wilt the spinach in a hot pan with a splash of water and a little butter, cook and then divide between 2 plates. Place 2 dabs on top of the spinach on each plate, drizzle with the butter sauce and serve.
The Dab turning up when it shouldn’t or adding variety to a sometimes same’y bag of fish (those beloved Whiting bashing sessions!) caught the imagination of me as a child; and as I have got older I have learned to enjoy its beautiful flavour and rank it up there alongside the Cod's and Bass's of this world. The Dab is a Tenacious predator in miniature and I hope that it remains commercially un-exploited and only available to the rod fisherman who want to catch and eat them!
…… Let’s keep this tasty little secret amongst us hey!