August 28, 2015

Blog the Twenty-ninth: On How to Broil and Eat your Fish Whole

The problem may not be the Gentiles after all.  The problem may well be modernity itself.  Commodious living has infantilized us. We eat like babies, whose food is cut up for them.

This thought dawned upon me while serving whole fish to a couple of Turkish brothers.  I’m talking native born Turks, mind you, from the seashore, no less, the one a naturalized immigrant, and the other a visitor to my table from the Black Sea.  They assured me that fish is cooked and served whole in their town, as in South Italy and South Brooklyn, but when I broiled us each a perch and presented each whole on a dinner plate, they required instruction on how best to eat it.  They were unintimidated by the fish and unembarrassed by their ignorance—which is perhaps more than I could hope for from Gentiles—but their ignorance was all the more appalling for coming from a people presumed to know food.   

It was the same shock I felt when I learned that my new computer doesn’t come with instructions in words, either on paper or on screen, just little moving-frame pictorial instructions, like stain glass windows set in motion.  Has illiteracy benighted the West overnight anew?  Similarly, I feel that if Turks no longer know how to fillet their own fish at table, Judgment  must have come and gone, and I missed it.  I feel as if I can remember a verse form a minor prophet, “When the Turk of the sea must be fed his fish, that he not choke on a bone like a babe, then the end is come.”  Apocryphal prophecies never make sense, you know, until they come true.

It’s one thing for a New World Gentile not to know how to eat a fish, but a Turk, worse yet, a Greek, the ur-Westener?  Yes, I have a Greek friend too, a Greek national, mind you, abiding among us as a resident alien, and he too grew up among a people who cook and eat their fish whole, as is right and just, he avers, but he too did not know how to fillet his own at table for himself.  As you know, my use of the word Gentile has a meaning as flexible as it is broad.  I might well use it to refer to anyone outside my family; but most often I use the word as an ancient Roman would have, to refer to the peoples north of the Alps, the peoples of the milk‑pail.  But the peoples of the olive and the fig, across the sea, can’t be called Gentiles!  They are kindred, even if at one or two removes, like cousins, if not from as near as Queens or the Bronx, then Long Island. 

I like to cook for my Turkish and Greek friends because I like eating with them.  Instead of personal compliments or critical praise, they offer me exclamations of delight.  They don’t have to be asked but once to please help themselves to the food and drink, and their pleasure is not pinched by restraints of propriety or temperance.  They are graceful without effort by dint of being gracious.  The Greek bears gifts of good Italian wine.  The Turk is willing to vacuum my orientals for me “right”.  They understand that my jibes are expressions of affection.  They return in kind.  There’s a lot of brotherly love.  And my food reminds them of their mothers.  Now that’s good wholesome fun. 

And yet, when I found out they didn’t know how to eat a fish whole, I felt somehow deceived, betrayed, estranged.  “Who are you?” I thought, “And am I alone in my culinary exile after all?”  Sensing my dismay, they kept reassuring me that people back home cook and eat their fish whole.  But what’s that to me?  Kindred blood is not kindred enough; I want kindred soul!  I want fellow exiles, instant friends in a foreign land, who not only wish but know how to eat their fish whole; who scorn fillets as food fit for the feeble, for those who crawl on four or walk on three, the former not yet ready, the latter no longer able, to eat as the vigorous do.

And what about you, my electronic friend, my aspiring kin, do you wish to eat as the vigorous do?  Then stop letting your fishmonger fillet, not to say infantilize, your fish for you.  I’ll tell you how to fillet it for yourself, and you can practice on small ones at home alone, for yourself, and once you get the knack of it, you can broil a big one for a whole dinner party, and fillet it for one and all, exuberant in your vigor.

Broiling fish whole is not just a moral matter.  It matters to the taste.  As with all other animal flesh, fish flesh cooked on its bone absorbs all the flavor that animal has given up for you.  There is, so to speak, a wholeness of flavor at stake.  Likewise, truly human eating—eating that knows, savors, and contemplates what it assimilates—is as much a matter of sight, smell, touch, even hearing, as of taste.  The food of a rational being addresses itself to the whole sensorium of that being, for contemplation of it as a whole by soul as a whole.  A whole fish delights the eye with the animal’s shapes and colors, the finger, lips, and tongue with its textures and tastes, the nose with the notes of the sea, and the ear with the crackling of seared skin.   Attended to, all this teaches you reverence for what you eat, and it sanctifies your pleasure.

So be reverent, and learn to broil and eat your fish whole in the New World, as has been done throughout the Old since time immemorial.  You can broil a red snapper large enough to feed five, or a perch just large enough for yourself.  I like small fish best, because I like the greater ratio of marinade to fish, and for a big boy of a fish, I might well dress the platter with some freshly made marinade, for surer seasoning. 

The brackish waters of a great bay, fed by fresh water from the land and salt from the sea, offer me big striped bass—called ‘rockfish’ hereabouts—and I’ve been told that smaller black bass is yet more delicious (but I’ve been warned off white bass as altogether bland).  There are also giant red snappers to be had for dinner parties.  For smaller single servings, I’ve recently discovered white perch, which I love, although I have to dig for specimens large enough to be worth broiling (smaller ones, I’m told, are best pan-fried). 

In Brooklyn, my parents loved porgies, which are often a bargain, but I can’t abide all the bones; there are so many, you can’t easily fillet the flesh in big chunks, but rather have to pick the flesh out of the bones, or the bones out of it.  I don’t like to work that hard to eat, so I forgo the pleasure of porgy.   I don’t like cracking crabs for the same reason – so I eat crab-cakes instead, like a baby.

[As for Bronzino, it’s just Mediterranean bass with good P.R..  I know Europeans who summarily dismiss the farm-raised or frozen—“it doesn’t taste anything like fresh wild-caught in Europe.”  In that case, why pay the surcharge to same-day jet it across the Atlantic?  You live on a land mass with the most fresh water on it in all the world, flanked by great oceans on either side, and you go trolling for fish in a faraway sea?]

Fish markets that sell fish whole typically pile them up in ice.  Don’t be afraid to dig for the plump and the comely.  Their eyes should be clear and bright, and they should smell of the sea—never buy fishy smelling fish (the exorbitant price of fish at pricey gourmet markets is no guarantee of freshness).  Blood is no problem, be it in the eyes or torso—on the contrary, it often indicates the fish is fresh caught.  In fact, best thing to do is ask the fishmonger what the fisherman brought in today, and choose choice specimens from that. 

The fish comes to the market whole from the fisherman, so hand it over to the fishmonger and ask him to gut it for you, and also to scale it if you’re going to broil it (but not to scale it if you’re going to do it on the grill, as the scales will keep it from sticking to the grate).  In either case, you best also tell him not to cut off the head, because he’s no doubt most familiar with Gentiles pusillanimously unable to look their dinner in the eye, and he might just assume you’re pusillanimous too.  But you’re not.

No, if you, Gentle reader, are going to destroy a life to feed your own, you will do the animal and yourself the honor of looking it thankfully in the eye.  Besides that, it tastes better with its head on.  In fact, the bits of head-flesh are even prized by some as the most delicious of all (even the eyes).  Moreover, once you accustom yourself to contemplating it the way sive Deus sive Natura meant it to look, you’ll find it becomes horrible to contemplate it decapitated—seems cruel and unnecessary.

As soon as I get it home, I put the fish to soak in a briny bath of 1 qt. water to ¼ cup salt.  I somehow feel I learned this from the Chinese.  In any case, I sometimes also cut three deep slits, on a slant, along the flank of each side of the fish, before putting it in the brine, especially if the fish is large and fresh‑water.  These slits are primarily for the sake of exposing the inner flesh to the marinating to come, but this salt brine can serve as a first foray of seasoning.  I especially like to brine fresh-water fish, which Mediterraneans generally reproach for being less tasty than salt-water fish, so I think of my brine as an a Chinese remedy.

My father, who came from the seaside and hence people who “know fish”, used to tell my mother, who comes from the mountains—“So what does she know about fish?”—that there’s no need to salt fish because it’s salty from the sea.  Well, that’s not true, at least in America.  Maybe because in Sicily you buy your fish live from the fisherman at the docks, it’s literally still dripping with seawater as well as squirming when you thrust it into the fire.  But I have found it critically important that you salt and pepper your fish before cooking, just as you would any meat. 

It’s true that sometimes I trust my brine to do the job, and just pat my fish dry with paper towels when I remove it from its salt-bath; but most often I use the brine rather as a cleanser only (salt is the soap of the sea), and rinse the fish well with fresh water before drying it off with paper towels, both outside and in the belly, and salt and pepper it from on high, evenly all over, on both sides and inside, before marinating.

The Sicilian marinade is as simple as it is delicious.  In a deep platter or broad bowl, I crush to cracking a biggish garlic clove or two, cut off its ends, peel off its skin, halve it, and rub the platter all over with garlic milk; then I chop the garlic halves into bits, first slicing each lengthwise once or twice, then crosswise somewhat finely.  I scatter the resulting pile of squarish garlic bits across the platter.  Next, I drizzle regular olive oil evenly all over the platter, covering it with an expansive pond.  I lightly but evenly salt the olive oil pond from on high, and then scatter over it fresh grindings of black pepper and pinches of dried oregano.  For freshness, I generously scatter choppings of fresh parsley as well.  Next, I roll a lemon under my palm against the countertop, to juice it a bit before cutting it in half, and I squirt puddles of lemon juice throughout the pond of seasoned olive oil; then into the puddles of lemon juice I squirt much littler squirts of white vinegar (preferably white wine)—for mutual softening of opposite acids—an old Sicilian trick, with some chemical explanation I can never quite remember. 

Okay, so that’s the marinade:  olive oil, lemon juice, a bit of white vinegar, chopped garlic, chopped fresh parsley, salt, pepper, and a bit of dried oregano.  I pick up the platter with both hands and swish all that around for some initial mixing, mixing to be finished by my turning the fish over in the marinade.  If I haven’t already done so, I now cut deep angled slits into the body of the well dried fish on both sides, and evenly salt and pepper it on both sides, plus inside the belly.  I turn it over a few times in the marinade, and then stuff pinches of garlic and parsley into each of the slits, as well as into the gutted belly.  The fish looks nice.  I contemplate it with contentment. 

The fish can marinade for as little as a half hour or all afternoon; to refresh and baste it, I turn it over in its marinade now and again.  When it’s time to broil it, I turn the broiler on high.  First turning the fish over in its marinade a final few times, I then remove it to bottom of a broiling pan, without any grate.  Then I scrape the remaining marinade from the platter over the fish in the pan, and there should be enough to run down over the fish and puddle in the pan.  I try to scrape away from the peaks garlic bits that might otherwise burn.  I might also stuff into the belly a few fresh sprigs of parsley, or even sprigs of thyme or fresh oregano, if I have them to hand in my herb garden.

Now I have to decide, on the basis of size, how close to the heat to broil the fish.  If the fish is a giant, I’ll put it on the bottom rack of the oven, and it might take 40 or 45 minutes; but if the fish are small, I’d broil them on the top rack close to the broiler (say, 6 inches away), as I would tender meat, so that they brown before overcooking and drying out, say, 5 minutes per side.   If of middle size, then middle rack, middle time.  (Now that I’ve said it, you see it’s just common sense?)  Of course, you can check on the fish and adjust as you go (more common sense):  if it seems to be steaming rather than broiling, for cooking too slow, or else searing without firming, for cooking too fast, then adjust as common sense dictates.  If it will take some time to cook, it behooves the fish that you baste it now and again with the pan juices, using a brush both to coat the torso and get into the slits.

It’ll look it when it’s cooked on the first side:  the skin will have curled and the curls have browned, and the slits will yawn to expose inner flesh bubbling a bit with residual marinade.  

Now you want to turn the fish over.  This is not easy—easy does it.  Use broad tongs or two utensils, one broad, flat, and thin, to slide under and flip over, and a second fork-like one to stabilize and steer.  Do your best, and don’t worry about collateral damage; concentrate on keeping the fish whole.

My mother does it differently than I do.  She bakes the fish instead of broiling it, at higher temperature for smaller fish, and lower for bigger—from as low as 375 to as high as 450.  The bigger it is, the more likely she is to also put it on a rack in the pan, to avoid having to turn it over (I’d put the pan on the lowest rack of the oven, in that case, closest to the heat source below).  My mother is more conscientious than I am about basting the fish with the pan juices during cooking.  Yet her ways risk rendering the fish more steamy than roasted; I prefer to risk the direct heat of the broiler, for the flavor searing alone can give. 

My mother was always glad to have the fish done on the grill instead, if only because my father took over the cooking.  As I said above, in that case they did not scale the fish, because the scales militate against the fish’s sticking to the grate.  My Turkish friend testifies that in Turkey they rub the grill with an onion half to militate against sticking.  But is a man who can’t fillet his own fish to be trusted?

Speaking of filleting, it’s time.  If I cook a big boy, I always first present him to the company to marvel at, and then decide whether I’ll fillet him before his admirers, or take him back into the less pressurized privacy of the kitchen to fillet.  For small fish, every diner gets one served them on their dinner plate, and another smaller plate for bones. 

It’s actually not that hard to fillet a cooked fish, the flesh coming easily away from the bone, but it does take practice.  You’ll have to mangle a few, no doubt, before you get the knack.  By the way, even in the best case scenario, you’ll have to pick some bones out of your fish flesh or pick flesh off of bones, which is tedious, but not difficult.  I’m sure the Turks would have found their way just fine without instruction.  By the way, even if you do succeed in filleting your fish scot free of bones, it’s a good practice to tongue your fish flesh for AWOLs before swallowing.

To fillet, use the x-ray vision of your mind’s eye to see a fish spine, headed by a skull and tailed by a spinal rudder.  Your first cut is to be along the length of the spine, from head to tail.  Poke around with the tip of your knife at the nape of the fish head to find the spine bone running down the middle of the torso, and run your knife along its length.  Now picture lying on the transverse bones of this spine two demi-fillets of fish, which you want to slide off those transverse bones and flip over, like opening out a book, so that the skin side is flipped down toward the plate and the inner flesh exposed to view.  To abet this sliding off and flipping over of the fillets, make little transverse cuts below the head and above the tail, to release your fillets laterally from head and tail, as your first cut released it longitudinally from the spine.

Sliding each demi-fillet off the bone while simultaneously flipping it over on its skin can be done with an upside down soup spoon, oddly enough, as the convex spoon can give the sort of stabilizing breadth a broad spatula does.  At least that’s how old-time waiters fillet whole fish table‑side, using a fork and spoon, wielding them together like chop-sticks.  I’d love to get a tutorial from one of those guys some time.  Meanwhile, I use my knife instead, working in sections, as needed.  Accordingly, when I serve whole fish, I provide as flat and broad a knife as I have—sharpness is in no way needed, and a steak knife would be inept.  I’ve seen fancy fish knives broad in the middle and pointed at top (for picking out bones?), but I’ve never used one.

Once I’ve opened out my fish like a book, I very gently take it by the tail and slowly lift up the spine, sliding my knife along the spine underneath while lifting to help the flesh fall free from the bones.  In the opportune moment, I grab the head as well and carry off the whole spine to a side-plate.  Now we have four demi-fillets lined up before us, but we’re not done.  There’s still some detail work.  Along the edges of the four demi-fillets, there will be little bones and dark stuff that it’s best to scrape up and away now.  It might be best to err on the side of excess rather than defect in deciding what to cut away and dispose of, aiming to preserve only the best and cleanest chunks of flesh.  But if you get good at this, you’ll also no doubt also get proud, and you’ll start thinking that the risk of a bone or two is worth picking through that dark meat, which you’ll aver is “the best part of the fish.”  That’s the sort of thing my people say, when they think you’re being a baby about bones.

[And what if you want to be babied and have your whole fish filleted for you?  Then you can just buy yourself trout, which for some reason is always sold already filleted open like a book, and always bone free, and you can marinate it in the Sicilian marinade, and lay it skin side down on a preheated racked broiler pan, and broil it close to the heat until its edges curl and its curls brown, and it will be ready to eat, without flipping.  You’ll be faint of heart, and no kin of mine, but at least you won’t choke on a fish bone.]

I always equip the platter with fresh lemon quarters for squirting on the fish, and decorate with fresh parsley sprigs, for a bright sight and fresh aroma.  As I mentioned, if my fish is big and I fear its flesh not sufficiently suffused with marinade, I’ll dress the serving platter with marinade afresh, exactly as I did the marinating platter before, but with greater temperance, to scale, for delicacy.

According to my father, the only suitable side to broiled fish is boiled potatoes, dressed with vinaigrette; but I sometimes mix them with boiled beets; and if the beet greens are fresh, I’ll boil them as well, and lay them down as a green bed for my pink potato salad – pink from mixing with the red beets.  Were I to sauté a side of greens in garlic and oil [and an undisclosed bit of chopped anchovy], I’d choose mild ones, like escarole, chard, spinach, or even lettuce.  I also like my recipe for cauliflower salad with broiled fish.  Pasta before would blunt the appetite for broiled fish’s delicacy (although spaghetti with white clam sauce is an exception), so cheese and bread afterward can fill out the meal and clear the palate for salad, fruit, and maybe even dessert.

The delicacy of light Italian whites is what I like best for the delicacy of broiled fish.  I call such white wines “God-water,” to excuse their lightness before their detractors, and in that apologetical spirit, I ask you, is it not only fitting that we drink God’s water when, at his nod, we thankfully feed on the creatures of his seas?


A Postscript

There were protests of slander at the dinner table last night, and vociferous demands of retraction, made by a certain Greek, who shall of course remain nameless.  Said Greek insists he has never been served a whole fish at said table, and further, that he certainly does know how to fillet a fish for himself, and that as a matter of fact, he with his own hands has fed his nephew fish on his lap countless times. Well, I suppose that memory can play one false, but devoted readers of this blog know well that it is less concerned with facts than truth, and taking into account that this plaintiff's own ancient authors testify to his people's eristic bent of soul (no Laconian he, but an Athenian), I decide in a spirit of dialectical engagement to cede to my indignant interlocutor his controvertible premise, and put it to him there and then to tell me how he fillets his fish at table, for himself and for his nephew (the sight of whom, dragged before the bar, argues more poignantly than any argument). "What do you mean? You just take away the bone."  Well, it appears to be as simple as that, Gentle Reader.  What more is there to say?


A Post-postscript.

Last night I decide to ambush the Greek:  he  rang the doorbell, and I confront him with a platter of twin marinating black bass.  "What's this?" he asks, since we had planned to go out to get dinner.  "The grace of the present moment.  I've been wanting to try black bass since the fishmonger recommended it at Annapolis Seafood Market, and there it was at Grauls, so I decided to buy it and make it for our dinner, so that you can prove yourself."  Well, he did. His way of dismembering a fish displays the animal acumen of a predator, and it requires rising from the table and washing one's hands afterward, but it is worthy not only of admiration in general, but even imitation in particulars.  First he wrenches the creature's lateral fins off and sucks the meat from the bone.  (My mother cuts these off ahead of time, but I leave them on for looks--never occurred to me to suck on them.)  Then he pulls off the dorsal fins on the top edge, and sucks those for anything succulent.  Then he beheads the poor creature, casting the head off pitilessly, Cyclops like, and looks at me with pity as I remark upon his pitilessness. But, truth be told, he is now able easily to flip the entire top part of fish flesh over to reveal the headless spine, which removed, displays the whole bottom part of fish flesh, so that there is now a clean expanse of fish flesh across his whole dish, to fall upon.  There are still some bones to be picked out here and there (and sucked upon), fingers cooperating with fork and knife throughout, and the work is efficiently, if not decorously, done.  I think in future I too will remove all my fins ahead of time, before the filleting proper (no pun not intended), and I may well even use my fingers to do it.


Fish Broiled Whole

*  Choose choice specimens of the freshest fish of best repute:  e.g., Striped Bass, Black Bass, Red Snapper, Perch, Porgy.

*  When you get the fish home, cut slits into its flesh at an angle on both sides, and put it to soak in a briny bath of 1 qt. water to ¼ cup salt.
*  In a deep pan or broad bowl, mix a marinade of regular olive oil, fresh squeezed lemon juice, some squirts of white vinegar, chopped garlic and chopped parsley, salt & pepper, and pinches of dried oregano.
*  Rinse the fish well in fresh water, and dry it well with paper towels, inside and out.  Then salt and pepper it, inside and out.  
*  Turn the fish over in the marinade, to coat it well.  Then tuck pinches of the marinade’s garlic and parsley into the slits and belly of the fish.  Marinate for at least a half-hour, or as long as all day, turning the fish over now and again.
* Turn on the broiler to pre-heat.  Place the fish in the bottom of a broiler pan, without its rack.  Pour the marinade over the fish.  Remove garlic bits on top out of burning distance by tucking them in slits & crevices or under the fish.
*  Broil small fish on the top rack close to the heat, big fish on the bottom of the rack far from it, and middling fish in the middle.  When the top side browns at the edges and its slits yawn to expose its sizzling flesh, gently turn the fish over to finish broiling on the second side.
*  When the fish is ready to eat, cut a slit lengthwise along its spine, and crosswise at its nape and tail.  Then from the central spine, slide the demi-fillet of flesh off the transverse bones while also flipping the fillet over, skin-side down, to expose its flesh; now do the other half.  Then gently lift up the whole spine, from tail to skull, with your knife helping the fillet of flesh below fall from the bone.  Carry the spine off, and then scrape together and remove the bones and mush at the edges of the fillets. 
*  If the fish is large and to be served on a platter to a dinner party, dress the serving platter with a fresh batch of the original marinade, and arrange the fillets on the platter, with lemon quarters and sprigs of parsley.