Off With Their Heads!
I’ve lucked into one of the best situations, food-wise, that one could possibly have stumbled upon – my neighbor loves to fish, but he and his wife don’t cook on a regular basis, and even if he did cook the fish, I don’t think she’s at all interested in eating it.
A few weeks ago, mere hours after getting his Pennsylvania fishing license for the season, my neighbor called me. “Want some fish?” he said. He has a knack for wading into water and, ten minutes later, emerging with the catch of the day.
This brought up something of a dilemma for me. For one thing, I was just about to put dinner on the table, so the fish would have to be refrigerated for at least a day. More importantly, I had never cleaned a fish before – in fact, I had never even handled any type of whole fish in the kitchen. For me, fish is something that comes cleaned and filleted and wrapped in butcher’s paper from the guy behind the seafood counter.
Suffice it to say, then, that the prospect of decapitating and gutting a fish was somewhat intimidating – but the fish were out of the water, and were going to go to waste unless I agreed to take them off of my neighbor’s hands. With some measure of reluctance, I told my neighbor to come on over, and in ten minutes he was standing in my kitchen with a plastic grocery bag filled with four trout.
He said he would teach me how to clean fish, and that it wasn’t hard to do. You know what? He was right. Sure, it’s messy, but no more messy than dealing with the gizzards from a chicken or turkey.
Dinner was placed in a holding pattern while, at his instruction, I lined the kitchen island with a double layer of newspaper. I had not expected the fresh fish to be so slippery, almost slimy – it is the antithesis of what everyone comes to expect from kitchen ingredients, since in every other instance, a slimy ingredient is a sure indication of spoilage and rot. But here, it meant that the fish were the freshest you could possibly hope for. The newspaper helps to keep the fish in place, more so than a cutting board would, and you’ll appreciate the absorption that it provides when the knives come out.
I know that I haven’t sharpened my knives in a while, and nothing demonstrates the need for a sharp blade more than cleaning fish. Holding each trout firmly in one hand, I used my other hand to cut the heads off – something that ideally should only take one or two swipes, but with a dull knife can be near impossible – it took me a couple of whacks, but wasn’t an overly frustrating ordeal. Flipping each fish over, I removed the tails in a similar fashion. For the squeamish, I can say that the trout did not bleed as much as I would have expected – on the other hand, you should also know that, unlike supermarket chickens, their innards are not neatly held in a little paper bag (but, on the other other hand, they don’t have very many innards, so it’s not like you’re cutting open a tauntaun with a lightsaber). A turn of the blade, and each trout was butterflied – emptied and rinsed thoroughly under cool running water in the sink. At this point, they were ready to be placed into a plastic bag and refrigerated.
Fast forward to the next day. Since the fish were so fresh, I wanted a very simple preparation that would highlight the trout in its purest form. I decided to steam them with some ginger, garlic, and soy – a preparation that almost doesn’t even need a recipe, but I’ll mock one up here for you off of the top of my head.
Steamed Trout with Ginger, Garlic, and Soy
1 knob of ginger, peeled, sliced thinly
2 cloves of garlic, peeled, sliced thinly
2 Tbs white wine mixed with 2 Tbs soy sauce and 1 Tbs sesame oil
Salt and pepper
Set some water in a pot over high heat. Get your steamer insert out and keep it nearby. Rinse the trout thoroughly under cool running water.
Lay each trout open on a clean working surface, and sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Layer the ginger, garlic, and chopped scallions inside of each trout, and spoon the wine/soy mixture over all of that. Fold the trout closed to make a packet and place into the steamer insert.
When the water is at a full boil, place the steamer insert into the pot, cover, and steam the fish for fifteen minutes.
How to Eat Whole Fish
Yes, steamed fish deserves a “How to Eat” section in the recipe, because if you attack any kind of whole fish willy nilly with a fork, you’ll end up with a mouthful of tiny fish bones and come away with a generally unpleasant experience. This is probably why more people don’t eat whole fish.
Once you have your fish on a plate, use your fork to gently pull and scrape away the skin, leaving only the delicate white flesh (don’t flip it over until you’ve eaten the top half).
Orient the fish so that the spine is on your left, tail end pointing away from you. On the left side, you’ll find a nice, thick ribbon of meat running the length of the fish. Use your fork to gently pry the fish up and away from the bone – this is the easiest meat to extract. You can either choose to eat this now or continue boning.
Now, from the center of the fish, going to the right-most edge (the belly) are the very fine bones that make up the fish skeletal structure. Use your fork or a spoon to gently scrape the flesh from left to right, which should encourage the meat to slide along the axis of the bones and right onto your plate.
When you’re done, just flip the fish over and repeat for the other side.