Warning: this post is not for the squeamish. It contains graphic content of BLOOD AND GUTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
OK, so I have a week left before Level 2 of Classic Culinary Arts ends. Well, technically I have four days of classes and a day of exams. On the day of examination, we have to deftly fillet a fish. I don’t know about the deftly part. When I fillet fish I feel like a helpless little kid trying to learn how to tie my shoes. But I’m getting better with practice. So that’s what I thought I would do this weekend – practice.
Actually, being able to fillet your own fish is not only rewarding but it can actually save you money. If you buy a couple of fillets at the super market, you are missing out on the bones from which you can easily make stock and stick in your freezer for a rainy day when you feel like making cioppino or something. Below I’ve laid out the basics for filleting a round fish (flat fish require a few more steps). If you want some better instructions, I recommend picking up The River Cottage Fish book. It is basically a fish encyclopedia – very well written with great photographs and excellent instructions on how to fillet various fish.
First, it’s important to be able to pick out a good fish. When you’re at the market scanning over the fish, really look them dead in the eye. Actually this is kind of unavoidable because, well, they are dead and wide-eyed under all that ice. But what I mean is you want to make sure the fish have very clear eyes. If the eyes are cloudy or knocked out of their sockets, don’t buy them. Make sure everything else is intact, too – fins, scales. The skin should be a a bit filmy and slimy and firm to the touch. You also want the fish to smell like the sea, like salt water. Not overly fishy.
Now that you have your little guy, keep him on ice in your refrigerator if you are not going to fillet the fish immediately. You’ll need:
A good pair of shears
A good fillet knife (flexible)
Tweezers (for pin bones)
When you’re ready, the first thing you want to do is remove the fins with a good pair of shears.
Next, you need to scale the fish. This isn’t absolutely necessary, especially if you are going to remove the skin. Even if you saute the fish, the scales will kind of disintegrate in the oil/butter. But getting some of them off will make a cleaner workspace. Using the backside of your knife, scrape against the scales all over the fish’s body. Watch out, they tend to fly off at you!
Now it’s time for the truly disgusting part, the gutting of le poisson (cue Psycho music). Just kidding, it’s really not all that bad and it’s very straight forward. Make a long incision with the tip of your knife from the gills to the anus. Keep your free hand on top of the fish to stabilize.
There are some guts attached to the head so don’t worry about trying to yank all those out. Those will easily slide out when we remove the head. Just pull out the ones that are loose and come out easily. When the body cavity is clean, rinse it out under cool water.
It’s time to get rid of the head. This part is pretty greousome, not going to lie, just because you have to kind of chop into the spine. The first thing to do that helps me is kind of visually draw a line around the gills of the fish. If you look at my finger in the bottom left picture, you will be able to feel where the cartilage ends and flesh begins. You want to cut around that.
Repeat this incision on the other side. The head should be free from the body now except for the section where it’s still attached to the spine.
Cut through the spine and pull off the head. The rest of the guts should come with it.
We’re ready to fillet!! This part can be a bit tricky at first, but just be slow and steady. The key is to not hack away at the fish with your knife. You want to make smooth, steady strokes with just the very top portion of your knife. Basically what you’ll be doing is slowly separating the flesh from the spine and ribs. You will be cutting on either side of the spine to remove the fillets. You get two fillets from round fish and four from flatfish. So run your finger along the spine and make an incision from the head (or in this case, where the head once was) to the tail on the TOP of the spine.
This is why have a good fillet knife comes in handy because as you can see in the picture above (right) the blade can bend. As you make long, clean strokes with the blade, you want to be able to hear the blade against the bones. This audible cue confirms that you are getting as much of the flesh off the bones as possible. Keep making long slices with your blade, always pressing down against the ribs until you get to a point at the bottom where you will have to cut through the ribs with shears to remove the fillet from the skeleton.
After you cut through the ribs (bottom left) you can use the blade of your knife or shears to cut away belly fat or skin from the bottom of the fillet (bottom right). In some cases, there may be bones in this area so you would have to use your blade and cut underneath the bones because there is still flesh under them you want to save.
Now you have one fillet!! All you do is repeat this process on the other side of the fish to remove the opposite fillet. Remove any pin bones with tweezers.
Now you have two fillets!! To portion them, just cut each fillet in half on a bias.
This coming week in class, we are going to make “Flounder My Way.” After a month and a half of following recipes, we are finally able to come up with something on our own…well, sort of. We are given a list of ingredients to choose from and from that list, we can create a personal dish. I wanted to test out an idea I had for “Flounder My Way” this weekend and it turned out pretty tasty. I used Branzino, which is a European seabass. The flavor reminded me of halibut and tilapia.
Branzino, My Way
Yield, 4 portions
4 Branzino fillets
1/2 medium or 1 small zucchini
1 medium Yukon gold potato, peeled
1 c quinoa
1/4 c apricots, chopped
1/4 c golden raisins
juice of 1/2 a lemon
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 500 degrees F. Line a half sheet pan with parchment. Season the fillets with salt and pepper and place them, skin side down, on the pan. Slice the zucchini paper thin on a mandolin or with a sharp knife. Trim the potato into a cylinder and slice paper thin as well. Layer the zucchini and potato in alternating layers on top of the fillets. Season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil.
Bake fillets for about 8 minutes. Use a cake tester to test fillets. Remove them from the oven when the flesh just slightly resists the tester. The fish will carryover a bit when you remove it from the oven. Meanwhile, cook the quinoa according to package directions. When the quinoa is done, stir in a tablespoon or two of butter, the chopped apricots, raisins, lemon juice and salt to taste.