Fish


With bellies full, we went back home that evening. Nothing much made our nights more fulfilling than a meal shared by friends and family followed by relaxing on a calm back porch overlooking the water. As the sun set along with the food in our stomachs, we made our way to bed.

The next morning, we went off to Menemsha to make good on our promise of oysters for dinner and/or daily snacks. As the Island has only a few ways to navigate around, we took the wrong road to get there. After driving for fifteen minutes, we made it across the marina from the town, just a short swim, with no way to get the car across. It was literally a stone’s throw away, and we found out upon our return home that there was a sporadic bike ferry across the water, but it was not to be that day.

Instead, we made our way over to the beach, where we kayaked to our hearts’ content, picking up sand dollars and shells on the gigantic sandbar north of the house. Our vessels gently rocked back and forth over the tiny breakers on the bay, and we made our way back to shore in time to leave for lunch at the wharf.

Lobster Traps

We made our way to Menemsha via the correct route, around the pond, up the road, and down the way to the port. Dozens of fishing vessels dotted the piers, lashed to the bulkheads with barrels of Lobster and Jonahs aboard. As we walked the line from one market (Larsen’s) to the other (Menemsha Fish Market), our stomachs began to rumble as we recalled all of our tasty options for lunch. Walking in to MFM, we saw our grail, what we had been hoping for.

We ordered at the window, grabbed the last two ice cold cokes from the fridge, and a few minutes later, five lobster rolls were up in the window. It was a hot day if you weren’t in the water, and we all got the lobster salad rolls, cold, a little bit of mayonnaise, and chopped celery. Taking our catch around to the back of the store, we sat on crates and newly furnished benches over the piers as we watched a fisherman sort the day’s catch.

In one bin, Chicks. In the other, Rocks. (Lobster and Crab)

When we were through, and our appetites were sated, we moseyed over to Larsen’s to view their fish selection. The case was empty, but the woman in charge was busy bringing out pans of seafood for our perusal. The first pan in was two glistening Monkfish tails. I didn’t need to see any more.

“Can I get those two tails?”

“Both of them?”

“Yep.”

In my previous fishmongering incarnation, the monkfish tails I saw were typically around 1/2 to 3/4 pound each. While this is good for portion size, seeing these larger fillets made me realize that flying through the smaller catch was far from sustainable. Currently, at work, they’ve made a push not to sell unsustainable fish, including Monk.

Although on principle I tend to agree with the promotion of sustainable fisheries, purchasing thousands of pounds of undersized fish for retail sale is much different than purchasing something directly off a boat that is fully mature and with minimal amount of bycatch.  Monkfish for dinner it would be.

On top of that, I made good on my promise of oysters, purchasing a dozen and a half of local Katamas for anytime eating. I had brought my oyster knife cross country along with my pin boning tweezers, just in case we came a cross any seafood that needed a quick fabricating. Lastly, we got three pounds of scallops to round out the haul, just because we could.

We got back to the house close to dinner time to find two more guests had arrived for the weekend, but it had been a long day of exertion and high temperature for those of us who had already been hanging around. My lady’s mom, ever the intrepid explorer and activity planner, was felled with a bout of exhaustion from all the activity, and as we were prepping the menu for dinner, she retired to the bed for some much needed rest, leaving me and a crew of  hungry vacationers with a kitchen full of food, a range full of burners, and a collective of rapidly growing appetites.

The kitchen instantly transformed into a brigade: Two on the salad, One firing up the grill, and me on the range. We still had two bags of salad greens from the Connecticut homestead, which were thoroughly washed and dried, and incorporated with fresh tomatoes and some pickled red onions from a meal a few days prior. The grill was set up, and after tossing some scapes and rapini in olive oil, salt and pepper, we threw those on to get a quick cook.

Moving them over to the hot zone, the Monkfish was next. I haven’t been known to cook Monkfish often, as it hasn’t appeared in stores when I’ve been looking, but I had marinated it with cumin, chili powder, coriander, salt, pepper, and oil when we got back, and after about an hour, it was ready to throw on the grill.

Inside, we put a bit of pasta on the stove for the vegetarians in the group. I say a bit, but it was about two pounds of penne. In a separate pan, I put chopped tomatoes, onion, garlic, and let it cook down for a fresh, quick tomato sauce. When the monkfish was getting close to done outside, I hit the sauce with a quick whizz with the burr mixer, and returned it to the pan. We had a container of fresh pesto in the fridge as well, so into the pot it went.

I recalled something about a simple recipe for scallops that we had wanted to try from earlier. With dozens of pans at our disposal, I picked a huge sturdy one and began searing the scallops off in batches. Ten to a pan, three minutes a side, pulled them out, next batch in. After the last batch, I deglazed the pan with an open bottle of white wine from the night before, chopped some parsley, threw it in with some capers, and added a few pats of butter, swirling it until it melted. I let it simmer for a minute, then returned all the scallops to the pan for a quick toss. Back out of the pan, onto one of our rapidly dwindling supply of platters.

The monkfish was ready. I let it rest for a few minutes, and then sliced into it. I tried it. So spicy. No worries. Along with the pickled onions, we had a chipotle salsa that I had made a few days before, and with a bit of sour cream, it turned into an accompanying sauce that was still a bit spicy, but just cooling enough to control the heat.

The table was set, and as I shucked oysters, everyone else was busy loading up the serving dishes.  As I was running around overseeing a lot of the action while trying to control the fate of two or three pans at once, I quickly tired of shucking. After a dozen, I threw the rest on the grill where they quickly opened.

Finally, we could sit down. Along with some crusty bread that we picked up earlier in the day, the table was packed with all sorts of delicious things to eat. We were tired, hot, sweaty, and didn’t even know where to begin.

Over the winter, I’ve been stuck on things that sustained me. A lot of them were excellent, and I’ve gained inspiration from various media on what I should make to enjoy the food coming out of my kitchen (Il Corvo Pasta, I’m looking at you). Even though I work at a grocery store, I get tired of the heavy things throughout the colden times that I’m forced to make. I love potatoes. I really enjoy pizza, pasta, casseroles, etc. I am from Wisconsin, after all. Still, if I want something that’s fresh and seasonal, that leaves me without the sluggish feeling of a cream sauce or offseason comfort, I’m going to go for fish. Even though I talk about Seasonality, just waiting for the first fruits of spring and summer can be agonizing.

During the colder months, it was pasta with the green leafies like kale and chard, some beans, a bit of parmigiano to make it stick to the ribs. Maybe a lasagna with some squash and a bit of California basil to make it at least feel a little fresh.

 

Now, with the weather getting warmer, I want to eat something that gives me some energy, and doesn’t leave me wanting to curl up in a ball on my couch underneath a blanket. I’m making the transition to the summer menu, and a large part of that is based on seafood.

In the fridge, I have my pickled vegetables- carrots, ramps, scapes. They are a combination of the last remnants of winter and the first shoots of spring. Last week, I got some baby turnips and beets and incorporated them into a dinner with the first fresh Pacific salmon of the year.

I boiled a few beets until tender, chilled them, and sliced them on a mandolin. With the turnips, I did the same thing, and then let them soak in a combination of soy sauce, a shot of maple syrup, and a small spoonful of chestnut honey. Roots and nuts go well together, but the chestnut honey is so strong that a little goes a long way. Fortunately, it doesn’t really go bad, so I can have it around for a while.

The salmon got a rubdown of some Alder smoked sea salt that has become a staple of our indoor kitchen. I let it sit for a few hours, and as I was ready to sear it, I set up a second pan to saute the turnip greens. Since they were still baby turnips, the greens themselves were not terribly bitter; They were almost light enough to dress in their own salad, but still benefitted from a quick go-round in the pan.

Two minutes in the pan with a turn of the pepper mill, and they were out. Next, into the pan went the turnip slices. Since they were almost fully cooked, I just swished them around a few times in the hot pan, enough to caramelize the syrupy glaze a little bit. As the pan with the salmon was going simultaneously, I finally accomplished in this apartment what I’d done so many times in so many kitchens before.

The smoke alarm went off.

Oh, well. Can’t do too much about that. Those not cooking went over to the alarm and began fanning it with pillows and blankets, hoping in some small way to create the smoke signal that dinner was ready, and with a secondary purpose of ceasing that infernal beep. It’s good to know that were a real fire ever to break out, that thing would definitely wake me up. Sometimes I just like to remind myself.

Anyway, back on the stove, everything was in place. I pulled a couple of pickled scapes out of the brine, and stacked alternating slices of golden beet and tomato in the center. A pinch of smoked paprika and a squirt of rosemary infused oil, and we had our salad.

Next on the plate was the salmon. I took my eyes off it for a second while the great smoke alarm debacle took place, but it seemed to me to work itself out. The final product was something that I have been missing for months. Just a nice piece of fish. That’s all. Good salad. Fresh flavors. Simple prep. Minimal components. Little bit of green. Little flashy color. Manageable portions.

A Passable Success

***

Last night, I got home from work with a day off ahead of me, once again, I didn’t feel like cooking. I purchased some items to fill the fridge. We had fresh vegetables, some frozen dessert treats, and some refreshing beverages now at our disposal. I also picked up a small, wild caught whole black bass.

I got home and salted it, took a few sprigs of dill, half an orange cut in small pieces, a bit of garlic and onion, and stuffed those right in the cavity. Even though it’s not corn season yet in the Midwest, I shelled a couple ears and roasted the fish whole on the bed of kernels and onions. A simpler and fresher dinner there never was.

The best thing about whole fish is that when you cook on the bone, it retains so much more moisture than a fillet. Many people I’ve talked to over the years show some trepidation about cooking fish, not wanting it to be raw, but not wanting to overcook it. On the bone, the fish stays  flavorful and tender, flaking right off when you need it to. If you put foil down on your baking sheet, or if you have a nonstick pan, the cleanup is a cinch.

Living in Chicago in the midst of groups of friends working in the theater and restaurant industries, I’ve been fortunate to come across many opportunities over the years that have enabled me to enjoy some of the best nights out I could hope for. Keeping abreast of the trends in both is not an easy task, nor is it something that I can always indulge in, as a good meal or night at the theater is difficult to indulge in on a regular basis without breaking the bank of this working stiff.

It’s more of a special occasion thing- something to savor. When we go out to dinner, actually go OUT, I want to make sure it’s something that is meaningful and fulfilling, and that the experience is something that justifies making the effort to provide maximum enjoyment and value. If we’re out to dinner or at a show, the last thing I want to do is spend the money that I earn on an event  that I leave feeling unsatiated.

There are hosts of dinners and dates over the past few years that have been recalled as successes. Since I’ve returned to Chicago, the game has been stepped up. We’ve enjoyed our fair share of meals cooked together with friends, had evenings where we made homemade pasta as an activity, and explored Farmer’s Markets with family, making a summertime feast. The dinners out that we have shared have been documented and memorable, and we’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy evenings at Steppenwolf and Lookingglass thanks to our connection to those in the business of theater.

This past weekend was the opening night for Lookingglass’ show “Cascabel” at the Water Tower Works in downtown Chicago. I had been hearing about it for months, and was more than excited to go. A collaboration between Lookingglass and James Beard Award winning celebrity chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill,  the show was billed as an ‘unforgettable theatrical adventure [including a] sumptuous gourmet Mexican feast, world-class circus acts, and a tantalizing love story.’ 

I’ve been to Frontera, and I’ve done his other upscale restaurant, Topolobampo, and while I have enjoyed them, selling Mexican food as fine dining has always been a head scratcher to me. Comfort food? Yes. Fine dining? It remains to be seen. Much of the Mexican food I’ve eaten has been more about flavors that blend with the help of time, rather than your typical French-influenced fare that is finished a la minute. It is within the structure of what we have been fed as diners that we expect quick-fired service and five minute flavors that pop when they hit your palate.

From conception to execution, Rick Bayless made it implicitly clear that it didn’t have to be that way.

***

We arrived at the theater and milled about in the lobby. As we met with other excited theatergoers, we were greeted by costumed servers offering margaritas. As expected, the margaritas that we received were not your garden variety TGI Friday’s blender drinks. These were Rick Bayless margaritas. Uniformed waitstaff circled through the crowd holding trays of tiny spoonfuls of green chili guacamole with king crab, and a liquified queso fundido looking like a poached egg atop a sauce spiced with the flavors of chorizo.

When it was time, we made our way to the seats in the balcony, giving us a view of the stage and main floor. The central action of the play took place in the kitchen and dining room of a  Mexican boarding house. Bayless was there, back to the audience and moving deliberately between his prep table and stove, preparing dishes that would become themselves sensory plot driving characters in the story. At our tiny two person table, we had a bamboo plate with a green leaf package with popcorn spilling out the sides and a note that instructed us to be patient and wait until instructed to open.

Hm. Okay. Surely nobody minded if we nibbled a bit at the popcorn.

The set-up for the show seemed simple enough, and left all the performers to do what they did best. It was light on acting, heavy on performance, specifically that of the circus-arts variety. Tony Hernandez, an Artistic Associate with Lookingglass and Las Vegas based performer, conceptualized an evening of individual acts of daring acrobatics, contortionism, and quick change artistry interspersed with a show that awakened the senses and passions of performers and audiences alike.

As the house lights dimmed and the show began, Bayless was hard at work as the new cook in the kitchen, plating a dish that looked similar to what we had been poking and sniffing for the better part of 30 minutes before the show began.  We enjoyed appetizers of pork belly, grilled zucchini and huitlacoche on burnt toast, along with small wafers with jellied stars made from beets with whipped cream cheese and mushroom, explained to us as “from the cook, and he apologizes for burning the toast. The red item in front of you is not cherry jello, but it’s really good. You’ll like it. ”

The characters began to filter onto the set, and took their places at the table. Like any other family or close knit group of people, there was the usual bickering.  As the food was served, the maitre’d and de facto emcee for the evening introduced himself to the audience with a bit of banter, and invited us to open the presents in front of us, but not to taste immediately. He gave us an embellishedthree count, upon which we were instructed to deeply inhale the aroma of a pristine tuna ceviche. It was unique and a way to get us more in tune with all of our senses as the show went on. We were then instructed to take a bite.

As his overt silliness and the action of what was happening onstage faded into the background, there was a break in the action as everyone both onstage and off enjoyed the first course. I noticed that it possessed more balance than a homemade ceviche, and was much more delicate than the shrimp ceviche I had made two days previous in a bout of inspiration upon securing the tickets. There was sweetness from the passionfruit, and the flavors on the plate had been inactively blending and cooking in front of us the entire time we were sitting there engrossed in the show.

Over glasses of wine that we sipped as the action resumed, we saw two characters overcome with the flavors and passion of the dish itself, and the scene took flight as the tiny actress playing the daughter grabbed ahold of the chandelier and was lofted to the ceiling of the theater where she and her partner performed a trapeze act both impressive and unmistakeably seductive. I don’t know how I came to this conclusion, but it might have been when her flowing dress was ripped off to reveal a pair of polka dotted bloomers, much better suited for a high-flying act.

As the show continued, the wine and beer flowed, and a few more circus acts followed. Hernandez, a high wire performer, utilized a clothesline hanging in the corner of the theater as a tightrope, removing his sweaty clothing from a night in the kitchen and changing into a new outfit, one hanging on the line, complete with suspenders and a button-up shirt. A tiny young woman just passing through the boarding house for the night, after eating the food, took to the bath, wherein she performed a balancing act of contortion and hand-standery. An act like this defies description, but in awe of both her physical strength and how sensual she was able to make her performance, the audience was left with their mouths agape, salivating for what came next.

It was at this point in the show where we got the backstory that we were looking for. The proprietress of the boarding house, having mourned over a romance lost many years ago of a cook whose food instilled in her the sustaining passion of life, had not eaten a bite since. It showed. The actress who played her was a Spanish Olive Oyl who was nothing more than a string bean, lithe and limber. As the everpresent classical Spanish guitarist on stage strummed, she sang a mournful song from a second story balcony. Downstairs in the kitchen, the cook was preparing a dish that brought back a feeling in her soul long since forgotten. As she sang and mourned, the smell of chiles and searing meat permeated the air that was already thick with lingering aromas and pheromones.

It’s to the credit of Bayless that he plays off of the senses of the audience while they sit, eat, and watch the show. He’s not onstage to wax poetic in a monologue, but in the conception of the show, he is always onstage and comfortable in his movements, and he is as equal a player in the show as those who flip and fly through the scenery. He knows where to add the right ingredient to the mix to evoke reminiscences of memorable meals or feelings, and as a natural in the kitchen, going about his business with such precision, he does not draw too much focus away from the spectacle of the evening’s events. It’s a truly rare glimpse that you get as a viewer, seeing someone so skilled at work, yet with all else going on, you’d almost never know he was there.

As Bayless cooks, the you get a real-time update of how things come together. You may think you smell the sesame seeds toasting, and get a whiff of that sauce coming together. As you smell it, so does the proprietress, who recognizes the smell as the mole poblano that her long lost love made so many years before. In addition to the audience participation as goaded by the maitre’d and the actors playing the gardener and his wife whose talents can best be described as “Mouth-Banana juggling”, the line between viewer and active storyline participant is all but erased thanks to the sense of smell.

When the dish came to the table, we inhaled again as Bayless, the cook, begged and pleaded with the Señora to take a bite. Although we were engrossed in what was happening onstage, it didn’t look like many people wanted to wait for her. We took our first bites, and it was revelatory. Everything that we had smelled was there. Sesame seeds, tomatoes, tomatillos, the beef, the chiles, all of the spices, and the smooth chocolate that gave the sauce a satin texture. A few minutes before, we watched him chop a bunch of black kale, and tucked underneath our beef tenderloin was a little pile of braised black kale. We all knew and could clearly see that he wasn’t cooking our food directly. We might have just forgotten that there was a kitchen in the back making all of our food. If we can see it, we know it’s happening.

As we ate, we saw yet another amazing duo of gymnasts, who performed a routine of flips, handstands, drops, and the female standing on her partner’s head. Yep. Right on that dude’s head. Yow. This reminds me of another great thing about this show-the pacing and plot points are spread out so you rarely have food in your mouth when it falls open in utter disbelief. Which it does. Quite often.

As the story progressed, the proprietress finally ate something and got a torrid case of happy feet, leaping to the center of the stage and giving a feverish flamenco dance atop the table. Flourishes and Dervishes never had it so good. Let it be known that if you want to convey passion with a distinctive Spanish/Mexican influence, get someone who’s really good at Flamenco. That’ll do.

The story was resolved! She ate! Her passion for food, life, and love, it was rekindled! As the theater celebrated with Oaxacan chocolate cake with a blood orange espuma and giant pastel communion wafers, we were entertained once again by the gardener and his wife, who in addition to juggling bananas with their mouths were also quick change artists, yet another unexpected and unique talent to add to the ever-growing list of new experiences for most of the audience. The gardener’s wife went through about three different changes, and the gentleman even got one stunning reveal of his own.

The show wrapped up quickly, with the cast dancing their way into the night and the audience left to finish their drinks and enjoy the tipsy company of a hundred other satisfied diners and theater patrons. Normally, a banner event like this wouldn’t be my scene, but for those who dine out and enjoy the theater on a regular basis, the ticket price, that of a hearty night out at any number of Chicago’s finer restaurants, is not overvalued. For a night of first class food and entertainment, it proves like the silken molé that blanketed my steak that a slow-cooked mixture of ingredients yields the most flavorful of results.

With Lookingglass Marketing Director Erik Schroeder and Chef Rick Bayless

I’m so glad I don’t have to work today. For meat and seafood, it’s top three in the worst days of the year. Why? Because two simple things, for 24 hours, become the all-consuming, must have dinner products.

Filet Mignon

Lobster

Why? Why is it that every year, around New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day, people feel the obligation to attempt the high risk maneuver of the surf and turf combo? I understand that it’s a special day for many people. I get it. I really do. HOWEVER, if this is a day where the gentleman of the relationship trots out his cooking skills to impress the lady, I always try to recommend something else.

It’s not because I want to discourage the man cooking a special dinner. Far from it. It’s the questions. All of the questions that people ask about how to cook their lobster and filets drive me up the wall. I want to say “If you don’t know how to cook it, please, for the sake of your relationship, do not attempt it for the first time tonight.”

I don’t say it.

Instead, here is a list of helpful answers to your Valentine’s Day queries about how to cook the best special surf and turf you can possibly muster.

“I need two filet mignons. How do I cook them?”

Alright. First, the proper pluralization of it is Filets Mignon. It comes from the French, meaning ‘dainty fillet’. What an adorable sounding name for a piece of meat. I just had a little chuckle at your expense.

Okay, now seriously. How do you want to cook them?

“Medium Rare.”

Are you saying that because you want to cook them medium rare, or because that’s what everyone says when they go to a steakhouse?

“Rare.”

Sear it in a SCALDING HOT PAN with a tiny bit of oil NOT OLIVE in the bottom for four minutes a side. Roll the sides so that you can give it an even texture. It’s going to be cold in the middle, but as long as you know that, it’ll be okay. Let it rest for ten minutes before you slice it so you can at least get a knife into it.

“Medium.”

Follow the steps for rare.  Heat your oven to 425. After you sear it, throw the whole thing in the oven for 10 minutes. Let it rest for ten minutes.  Slice and serve.

“Well Done.”

Seriously? Well done? Get a Petite Top Sirloin steak over here. I guarantee you won’t be able to tell the difference after you pull it out of the oven. Moreover, you will save approximately $30, which you can then use on flowers to make up for the fact that your steak is rendered flavorless and inedible. Sorry. $25 on flowers. $5 for a bottle of A-1. But don’t you feel so much better that you saved your money on that steak? Don’t forget to throw away the butcher paper.

***

All joking aside, it’s not that difficult to make a steak. It’s easier to make other steaks taste better than a filet, and you won’t feel the sting of your credit card digging into your hip as you wrench it out to pay more than you should for a steak. However, like a dutiful significant other, you’ve purchased a filet.

Let’s get cooking.

First, take the steaks out of the butcher paper. Look at them sitting there on the counter. Is one thicker than the other? Are you worried that one will cook faster than the other and then you’ll be left with two incredibly different degrees of doneness? Don’t worry. As the chef, you take whichever one is the less appealing, or whichever one comes out looking kind of funny.

That’s love.

Season the outside with salt and pepper. Rub all the surfaces, and let the steaks sit for about an hour at room temperature. Don’t start with a cold steak in a pan. That would be your second mistake, the first being purchasing a filet mignon rather than a flatiron or delicious, delicious ribeye.

Now, remember what I said about the olive oil? Don’t use it for steak. Don’t. It’s for your salad. It’s not for frying.  Turn your heat on to medium high, closer to the high side of things. No, you won’t burn your place down. You might get it a little smoky, but you won’t burn it down. When it’s pretty hot, grab your regular vegetable oil, and just put a  little less than a quarter sized drop in your pan. It’s going to smoke and bevel when you swirl it around. You only need just enough to cover the area where you will be searing the meat.

Is it smoking? Good. Put your steaks in the pan, at least an inch apart so they don’t end up steaming next to each other. Just let them sit. Don’t touch them. Don’t. Don’t touch them. I’m serious. Let them sit for at least four minutes a side. If there’s oil pooling at the bottom of the pan, you have too much in there. I told you to put less oil in there. Why didn’t you listen to me? Your steak isn’t going to get beautifully browned, and then your girlfriend is going to yell at you and then Valentine’s Day will be ruined! I will not be responsible for this. Do you hear me!?

Whoa. Okay, deep breath. You didn’t touch the steak, did you? Okay. Good. Just treat it like a grilled cheese sandwich. After four minutes, if it starts to smell like it’s browning, try lifting a corner of the steak from the pan. If it releases easily, congratulations! You are cooking it right so far!

Is it not releasing from the pan easily? Leave it in there. Check it in two minutes.

Okay, it’s good and ready. Now, flip it. Let it stay there. Don’t touch it. Don’t. Just don’t do it. Four more minutes, four minutes, then roll the sides, then let it rest. Boom. Congratulations. Now you have a rare steak. Really rare.

Want a more medium steak? Remember what I told you earlier? Heat the oven up to 425. Throw the whole pan in there. Let it go for about ten minutes. Pull it out. Let it rest.

Want something well done? If you haven’t been listening up to this point, I simply will not tell you anything more than throw it in the microwave for an hour, and then throw it in the trash with your hopes and dreams.

***

Now, on to the lobster. Nobody knows how to cook a lobster unless you’ve done it on more occasions than a holiday or for a special night with the lady once in a blue moon. Still, you’ve got your lobster, and you have to cook it, right? Right. So, with that in mind, I will tell you how to cook lobster tails, skipping over the part where you have to kill them, because although I’ve done it on many occasions, I choose not to. There is something unappetizing about describing that process, so I’ll leave it out. Just get lobster tails, okay?

So you have your tails. If they’re small, (8 oz or smaller), take a barbecue skewer and spear them from flipper to front so they don’t curl up. Put them in a casserole dish. Boil a pot of water, salted, and pour it over the top. Let them sit for ten to 15 minutes. When they are good and red, pull them out, slice them down the back, and pull the meat out. I know you want a nice presentation, but I bet you also want a nice dinner where your date doesn’t hem and haw over how difficult it is to get the lobster out of the shell. Considerate cookers of the world, do them a favor and shell the meat.

Save the shells for stock. They make a good one. Either roast them straight away, or throw them in the freezer. I recommend roasting them until they are brittle and dry, just so they don’t severely stink up the freezer.

Now, let the meat cool down. You should have two half tails, split lengthwise, for each whole lobster tail that you got. Do you? Okay, good.

The meat is still tender. This is really important, as when most people get them and don’t ask the questions, they just throw it in a boiling pot of water, leting it curl and gnarl itself into a tiny ball of awfulness, once again wasting their money. Like throwing the steak in the oven, you can easily throw the meat on the grill, under the broiler, or into a warm pot of butter before serving, maintaining the flavor and delicate texture.

Did you get that? Don’t boil your tail.

Don’t.

Five minutes in contact with heat should do the trick, and by the time it is ready to go, you have everything timed out perfectly, and your date is salivating in a Pavlovian way over the wonderful smells that are coming from the kitchen.

“Hot Dog! I never knew you could cook like this, (fill in your name here)!”

I bet you didn’t either. You’re welcome. Now go. The dinner hour is fast approaching. Get your mind in the game, your butt in the kitchen, and make the best damned Valentime you’ve ever done.

I’ve done all these entries, and haven’t done the one that tells people how to fillet a fish. Maybe it’s because there is a lack of whole fish in the Midwest retail market at affordable prices. Maybe it’s because I just haven’t gotten out to get some. In any case, Here’s a tutorial on how to dress a fish from its whole state to fillets.

First, choose your fish. There are flat fish, like fluke, halibut, flounder, sole, etc., and there are round fish, which usually can be broken down into two groups of large and small. Since I don’t want to buy a whole swordfish or tuna (maybe a tuna, but that’s for a later post) and break it down, we’ll be focusing on the smaller fish. Today, I’ll be using a walleye, the jewel of the Great Lakes, but this method of filleting can be used with a salmon, trout, or any fish that you catch in a lake or river that you have to take the guts out from the bottom. I will try to be discreet with the pictures.

As I said, I will be using a walleye. It’s a great fish, cooking up light, flaky, and moist. In general, it doesn’t have the muddy taste that a lot of freshwater fish have, but it does have a good flavor when baked, broiled, or fried in the great North Midwestern Fish Fry tradition. In contrast to its boring cousin, the whitefish, Walleye is more firm and has a higher oil content, which lends itself well to most cooking methods.

Without further ado, here is the walleye:

It weighs about a pound and three quarters, but keep in mind that as you pare it down, a lot of it will be waste.

Step 1: Put it in the sink. Grasp the fish by the tail with one hand, and run the fish under cool water. With the other, take either a fish scaler (available at all fine fish scaling stores and some kitchen implement stores that may rhyme with Billiams Fonoma) or a sharp knife, and rake the scales off using a motion going from the tail to the collar. Hold your blade almost perpendicular to the skin, as the severe angle of the knife will get under the scales and lift them up, separating them from the fish and running into the bottom of the sink. This will be messy, but it is  one of the most important steps if you want to have a crispy skin and nice presentation. If you want to eat the skin, YOU MUST DO THIS. Nothing stinks more than getting a scale in your mouth when you’re enjoying a nice dinner. It’s like getting a popcorn husk stuck on your tongue.

Repeat this process with the other side of the fish. (PROTIP: You can also use a clean steel scouring pad, not Brillo or anything that has detergent in it, to scrape off some scales. It works well) When you’re done, rinse the fish, pat it dry, and make an incision directly below the chin on the underside of the fish, and running the length of the belly all the way back to the anal fins.

Here’s another helpful tip: Fish like walleye, snapper, branzini and many other small species that have spikes on their fins that secrete a toxin to help protect them in the wild from predators. From my experience working in places where they throw and catch fish as part of a daily routine, do not get poked. If you need to, trim these fins off first thing. This includes the dorsal fin (The big one on top) and the anal fin (on the bottom, close to the tail). Anything that looks like it could be a poisonous dagger, try to stay away from. Also, if you’re thinking of saving scraps for soup, you can leave these out. They have next to no nutritional value, and they don’t make the soup taste any better.

So your fish, huh? It has this incision now. Wow. There’s guts. Take them out and throw them away. Don’t be a hero. It’ll all be over soon. Just put them in a bag, and leave it in the sink to put all the other stuff in.

Guts removed, your fish should now look like this:

Pretty Cool. You’re doing it. Rinse out the cavity, and pat it dry, placing it on your cutting board. If you notice, my cutting board in the picture was too small, so I’ve improvised at home by putting two together. This doesn’t really work. If you have a surface that is easily cleanable that is not a semiporous wood, but is stable and can deal with a little slipping around, go with that. You can also put a dish towel underneath if the freshness or sliminess of your fish is too much to keep still.

Okay. Now that your fish is on your cutting surface, sharpen your knife. Get your steel, tri-stone, or whatever sharpening implement out and sharpen your knife. Nobody likes working with a dull knife. If you don’t have one of these, in a pinch, you can use the bottom, unfinished edge of a ceramic mug, holding your blade at a 30-45 degree angle to the surface, and giving it a few passes. It is important as you sharpen your knife, to make sure you use the same basic angle every time. If you do not, you run the risk of creating a wavy, uneven surface on the cutting edge of your blade. It will be dull, and the life of your knife will waste away in sadness, never living up to its full potential.

Do not use a serrated knife. This will rip your fish.

Sidebar: I don’t watch Top Chef. Why? The first season, I saw so many people rip and tear their fish up when they were challenged to fillet a fish. Professionals had never filleted fish before. It was disgraceful. Their technique was all over the place, and they left so much meat on the bone that, as a former coworker once said, “it would feed my family back in Portugal for a week, but they wouldn’t eat it out of protest for a job done so poorly.” You get the right tool for the job, be deliberate in your cuts, study up on how to do it, and just do it.

At the end of the day, though, it’s just a fish. When I started out at the Market in Seattle, I thought I was alright at filleting fish, but I didn’t really even have the basic skills down. For the first few months, I was the hawker, the guy out front bringing people in, the guy throwing the fish over the counter. After a while, I wanted to start filleting, so I watched, asked questions, learned, and tried.

I wasn’t very good at first. I wouldn’t say I tore up the first fish I tried, but I left more than a little bit of meat on the bone. The point though was that I had started learning the right way of doing things. As time went on, I got better. As my boss told me, “As you get more comfortable, you’ll understand that it’s just a fish.” Yes, it had a life, and especially in the Pacific Northwest, where fish is so tied to the culture that you can’t separate the fish from the region, it’s a part of the every day, but it’s just a fish. Once I understood that, my movements with a knife became more relaxed. The motion became more fluid, and I started getting better. After about two hundred fish, I was decent. Not great, but not horrible, either. There are guys out there who have filleted more fish in a week than I have in the past ten years. That’s all they do. I see them at competitions, at Fish houses, cutting events. They’re magnificent. To see someone who has so much control over their craft that they can do it with great practical flourish and agility is a marvelous thing. I don’t care if it’s watching a football game or listening to a panel discussion on the mating habits of primates at the Jane Goodall Center. There’s something to be said for watching a master at work.

Okay, now that we have that tidbit out of the way, look at that picture again. The one right above all that tangential nonsense. Notice the part of the fish closest to the head. The little C shape behind where the gills are is called the collar. At the front of the belly incision, you’ll want to make sure that you have cut all the way up to and through the arrow shaped point under the chin. This is the first cut you will make to make your fillet look like a fillet

Apologies for the following pictures not showing the action of cutting the fish. It’s hard to hold an iPhone with a slimy hand and cut with the other.

Lift up the gill flap, and angle your knife blade toward the head, When you feel the spine, angle the blade edge back, running right along the spine, parallel to the table. Angle the tip down pointing at the table, and lift up the bottom edge of the fillet so that your knife does not catch the flesh and cause any marks or gouges when you run the blade from the collar to the tail.

Are you at that point?

Good.

You should have the handle of the knife underneath the belly incision, and the point of the knife angled slightly downward toward the table along the top edge of the fish.

Now, fish is delicate, so it doesn’t take much effort to fillet it off the bone. By drawing the knife toward you with your strokes while applying gentle pressure in the direction of the tail, you should be able to feel your knife slicing through the pinbones that are along the ribcage.

Guide the knife through until you get past the ribcage, and then flatten it back out so the blade is once again parallel to the table. Finish slicing the length of the fish and set the fillet aside.

Repeat with the other side. Here’s how it should look when you’re done.

Flip the fillets over so they’re skin side down. Trim off the collar, as shown in this next picture.

Those little pieces that are separated are the collar.

Once the collar has been removed, you want to take your knife and trim off the white part that was inside the belly cavity. Get the blade as close to the white part as you can, and angle it down. Do a  quick draw of the  blade under it, and slice the entire part right off. If the swimmer fins on the underbelly of the fish are still attached, you may find it easier to remove the white part if you trim the fins off before you attempt to cut it off.

Okay, now you have your fillets. If you’ve fully scaled them before you fillet, you can leave them just like that. The skin, after cooking, crisps up nicely, and adds a lot of flavor to the finished product. If you have a good skin with minimal scales, season it with salt and pepper, and saute it for about 4-5 minutes with the skin side on the pan.

With fish, the theory of 10 minutes of cooking time per inch of thickness applies here, and as most fillets fall somewhere under the 3/4″ thickness, it’s best to finish by flipping onto the flesh side for two minutes, giving a light brown to the top without hard cooking all the way through. As with steak, it’s good to undercook it just a little bit, as the residual heat from the meat and cooking vessel will gently finish it, leaving you with a product that is still moist.

If you wish to skin your fish, take your knife at a 45 degree angle, and 1/4″ from the tail, make a cut through the flesh down to the skin. All you need to skin a fish is a small enough tab close to the tail to grasp while you wiggle the skin, not the knife, back and forth. Your knife should be sharp enough to handle it. As you grasp the little tab on the tail, angle your knife the other way at approximately 45 degrees, and pull the skin taut, towards you, wiggling it back and forth against the blade, which is resting where the skin meets the flesh. It should easily separate, and you should be left with a nicely trimmed fillet and a skin with next to no meat on it.

Something like this

It’s okay if there’s a little meat left on the skin. You can go back and do a little patchwork to make it look prettier. Remember, it’s not about how it looks, but how it tastes.

With all foods, I look at where they come from and what other items grow there that would be complimentary. With Fish, Alaskan Halibut may be well matched with pineapple, but your tropical fruit has much more in common with a Tuna or an Opah.

Walleye, one of the prizes of the Great Lakes and a staple of the fish fry, is best suited, in my opinion, to flavors such as mustard and pecans. Freshwater fish, while delicious with citrus, never really gets the same bump from oranges, unless it comes in a side of hollandaise. The Fish Fry is about flavors that stick. The most adventurous that most people get with their flavors with lakefish is adding a squirt of lemon to their tartar sauce. By crusting a walleye with a mixture of panko breadcrumbs and crushed pecans or walnuts sticking to a coating of a thick german mustard, it’s a hearty winter flavor in a lighter package than your meat and potatoes.

Of course, when it comes to what is served best with the walleye, always go for a side of boiled potatoes. Maybe a little dill. Maybe a little butter. With all fish from the Midwest, if you want to keep it authentic, keep it simple. And Enjoy.

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