I’m foregoing pictures for this post because I remembered that writing practice is one of my goals for this blog and I don’t want to get too in the habit of merely writing “look what I did!” in front of a photo. So if you come away from this post knowing precisely how to fillet a fish without any visuals, I will consider myself successful.
Friday we entered our kitchen to find trays of whole fish on ice waiting for us. Though already dead, a few menacing heads poked out of the ice with stern, bright-eyed looks and exposed chompers as if to inspire a last-minute reconsideration of that we were about to do.
I’ve seen many a cooking show where a contestant who could otherwise cook a piece of fish beautifully, mangled the thing when it came to breaking it down from a whole. I was admittedly intimidated, and also expecting it to be difficult.
Chef Allen demonstrated on a striped bass, tracing with a knife tip along one of its sides where you expect the fillet to be. Basically intuitive, the fillet goes from fin to belly, keeping just this side of head and tail, each trace of the knife going a little deeper and angling against the bones until the fillet is gracefully separated from the Fishie’s ribcage. Honestly…it didn’t look all that difficult, but I was careful not to get too overconfident.
So I went to my own striped bass, who I named Spanky. Not everyone was into the idea of naming the fish whose flesh they were about to separate from its skeleton, but one other classmate gamely called his “Steve.” Spanky came pre-gutted, so I cautiously followed the tracing pattern, occasionally wiping errant scales off of my knife, lifting the flesh up after each subsequent cut, not taking any bones with me, until I had a nice-sized fillet sitting on my cutting board in less time than I imagined. Just like that, from animal to meat.
“That was so satisfying,” I muttered to myself. Chef Allen came over to have a look and pronounced that I was a natural, which I can only attribute to the fact that as a child I thought I would be a fish when I grew up. (My brother, I decided, would be a boat. His name is also Steve, but he is not a fish. He is a boat.) Obviously I am one with the creatures, and visions of my promising future at Le Bernadin started appearing…
Next up, grouper. Grouper, to put it bluntly, is one weird looking thing. This dude starts life swimming upright with eyes on the sides (not to be confused with eyes on the prize) and eventually moves to being a flat fish that swims mermaid style, top-to bottom. With both eyes now on top of its head, one is a little wonky from its migration, and the guts remain approximately where they were when the thing was born. Imagine your intestines stored about at where your left (facial) cheek is, and now you’re imagining life as a grouper. This is all to say that while the experience was a little more bizarre, the tracing method still applies, and the fillets came away from the fish with little argument, despite Mr. Grouper’s wonky, crazy-eyed stare.
So when I get to mackerel (go ahead and say it – Holy Mackerel!) I am unconcerned about its comparative size and the fact that it is an upright fish and hasn’t yet been gutted. I am a natural, naturally, so I slice the bottom of the fish open, letting the guts spill out to prove I am not at all squeamish about these things. In an aggressive effort, however, to disconnect the guts from wherever they were anchored inside the fish, I cut the ubiquitous “blood line.” Now my cutting board and hands look like a crime scene, and although I am the one holding the knife, it’s a little unclear to me whether the fish or myself is the victim. People around me do not appear to be having this problem, happily sawing away at their holy mackerels. I ask Chef Allen what I did wrong, as in “how can I do this better next time?” and I fear he interprets my question as “Eek! Help! Blood!” because his answer is merely, “You’ll be fine.”
So I hastily fillet the rest of the bloody beast, not in the least bit attractively as I had with Spanky, imagining that Chef Ripert was now probably reconsidering whether I am his next prodigee.
Pictures of all this later, I promise.
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