What I mean by this phrase is learning an art that has mostly gone by the wayside in American cuisine, an art that many have and still do engage in. That is, when eating a sirloin steak, being equally ready to eat the kidney, shank, liver, brain, or heart of the cow. When eating pork ribs, also eating the feet, the stomach lining, the spleen, and head of the pig.
Now I realize that for some of my readers, this kind of eating might just turn your stomach. So, instead of carving into a delicious grilled heart straight away, we'll take some stepwise motion and start small. Baby steps. Also, because the recipes for each step are numerous, the entries will take the form of general principles to remember when dealing with the whole animal.
So, without further ado, let's start our journey with...
The Whole Fish
- 1 entire fish* (For the sake of kitchen messes, you can ask your fishmonger to scale and clean the entrails out of the fish. However, if you have a garden or are growing plants in some form, ask for the entrails, grind them up into a paste, add to water and use them for some excellent, free fertilizer)
So much of our food system is based on processing the items we eat into non-recognizable forms. When we eat 'fish,' we usually mean that we are eating the complex musculature running along the sides of the body of a fish, aka a fillet (or perhaps a loin for the large pelagic species).
The entire fish is usually a kind of gruesome reminiscence that we have of 'primitive' cultures, with the now-unblinking eye staring back at you as you try to enjoy the food. However, with this understanding of eating 'fish' has also come the specter of cooking fish. Namely, the specter of overcooking fish. Take a look in most cookbooks, and on the seafood recipes there is some kind of warning about watching your fish so that it does not become overcooked.
When you are dealing with a thin, boneless, skinless fillet - overcooking can surely occur in a matter of a minute or two. Hence, I advocate you start your entire animal eating with an entire fish and allow yourself to relax a bit with regard to incorrect cooking.
- Find a good fishmonger near you. This can be difficult, as people are usually ok with the utter horseshit that they sell you at the supermarket.
- After you have found a reputable fishmonger, skip the fillets and go for the whole fish. There are a number of species that lend themselves particularly well to being left whole. Seek one that is from relatively close by (for those in the middle of the country, choose the nearest coast!), and ask your fishmonger if you are unsure.
- When selecting a whole fish, the freshness is in the eyes. If the eyes look cloudy or milky, skip that one. The eyes should be relatively clear, and the fish itself should not have a strong odor**. Try to buy your fish on the same day that you will use it. Keep it cold.
- A whole fish will have lots of flavor in and of itself. Some folks add any number of sauces, spices, and herbs to their fish, but these preparations tend to completely overwhelm the delicate flavors that lie waiting for you in a whole fish. Thus, when cooking your fish, be very restrained with your herb choices, and choose fresh herbs if available. The combination of lemon, thyme, parsley, and butter has a heady synergy with most types of fish.
- Additionally, your fish will have lots of moisture already in its bones, which are going to stay sealed within the fish instead of being thrown into the garbage. The belly of the fish will also be split, allowing you a great place to nestle some modest herbs and butter. Don't slash your fish's skin - this aberration of modern cooking methods dries the flesh out and lets all the juices run into the pan instead of into the meat.
- The actual cooking should not scare you. Splash a bit of fat and moisture into a pan, nestle your fish in (you may have to lop off the head to fit it, but try not to), and pop it into a hot oven. Low and slow is not for fish. Go for no less than 205º C / 400º F when cooking a fish, and perhaps more for smaller fish. For time, 7-10 minutes on each side should be really adequate, so 14-20 min. total (unless you have a very large fish).
- Dig in! Don't be afraid of bones, just be careful and spit them out when you run into one. Also, you should relish the difference in flavor that the flesh takes on as you move along the fish. Put the whole animal on a plate and dig in with your friends and family. A whole fish is a great family-style meal.
- Finally, don't forget to stare the fish in the eye, thank her or him for nourishing you, and tell her or him that perhaps, one day, your own body will nourish other fish.
* The fish in the picture is a sea bass from the east coast. Try to choose a fish that is not over-fished, and is not from a faraway place. You can also find flat fish and do them in the same way, although their thinness might be reason to knock a few minutes off the total cooking time. If you can find a grey mullet, do avail yourself of this opportunity, as it is a rare treat.
** People associate a fishy odor with all fish. Such is a unfair characterization. Fish only smells strongly if it is quite old. Fresh fish takes on many scents, from a kind of cucumber bouquet for the cold-water species to something far more musky for warmer-water ones. Very old fish also has its place, despite the American aversion to all things smelly. Sauces made from fermented seafood products are delicious.