Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Fish in their entirety

Because I'm suggestible, or because inside this years-old-Uniqlo-clad exterior lies a foodie-hipster, the other night I roasted whole fish for the first time. Melissa Clark had me convinced. Why not make something easy, economical, and delicious? I'm not, for whatever reason, grossed out by fish that seem to be looking back at you. What stops me from ordering whole fish in a restaurant is the $30 price tag.

Advice about buying fish always tells you to smell the fish, something I've never seen anyone do, even at actual fish places, let alone at the fish counter of a supermarket, even Whole Foods. You're meant to pick up a fish you're considering buying, to give it as much thought as you would a Prospect Heights apartment you're considering signing a two-year lease on, to chat with the 'monger about sustainability (and verify that info using an app on your phone), to make sure its eyes and scales are as they should be, and so on. Whole Foods tells you, via labels, if the fish is or isn't tragically endangered, but I do not (yet) have enough Upper West Side (Park Slope?) matron in me to ask someone whose job is to gut fish at a yuppie supermarket whether I could smell each fish individually. What would the logistics of that even be? Was I to bring my own rubber gloves? The ones I just used to clean the bath? I made peace with the fact that I could very well get home and discover - as one does, often enough, with fillets - that there were two whole, stinky fish, and renting the car-sharing car a second time to return fish would kind of defeat the purpose of getting a refund.

Or perhaps. For the proper amount of one of the least expensive whole-fish varieties on offer, a snapper of some kind, this was over $20. Less than in a restaurant, yes, but with the possibility I'd cook it wrong, and the definite knowledge that a restaurant staff would not be preparing or cleaning up from the proceedings. And when I'd undertaken this plan with the hopes that my not being the clichéd squeamish American (in this regard, at least) would prevent me from paying the Squeamish American markup, I was kind of disappointed to see that the lower price is basically because the non-edible parts of a fish contribute to the weight. (Can a fish carcass morph into fish stock? Evidently, but I had no need for fish stock, nor, post-mega-grocery-trip, room in the fridge for a bulky ingredient I'd probably never use. Again, not - yet - enough that person to be doing things quite so "Portlandia"-ish.)

I will skip over the intervening period, including a certain amount of anxiety about what would come of these whole, raw fish while we stocked up on on-sale De Cecco pasta and other more processed foods at Wegmans, as well as the side-dish-preparations (sandy asparagus and quick-boiled-then-peeled-sliced-and-fried potatoes).

The fish - such a relief! - turned out not to smell of anything much, which is what you're looking for, so I proceeded, obediently filling the cavity with rosemary, lemon slices, and garlic, the "Mediterranean" way, says Melissa Clark, and I suppose it did evoke something more romantic than a preppy, landlocked bit of Central NJ.

16 minutes in a 450F degree oven later, out came two even more dead-seeming snappers. The result was a bit less 'there might be some bones' than 'approach this fish as you would cherries, and assume that every bite will involve spitting something out,' with an added, 'and perhaps a trip to the ER.' Le Bernardin is not recruiting me any time soon. I asked my husband if he thought this tasted better than fillets, and he pointed out (and this had been my thought, too, but I didn't dare admit it) that we'd never gotten snapper fillets before, so we had no real means of comparison. Was it succulent, rustic, spectacular? Technically, probably, but knowing how many lamb chops this would have amounted to (sorry, Bisou), and more to the point, knowing on some level that I'd prefer a $3 dinner of pasta with vegetables and cheese to any incarnation of fish, made me think this was the first and last time I'd be purchasing whole fish. In theory, yes, in practice, no thanks.

1 comment:

Sigivald said...

I occasionally order the whole fried fish at Thai or Chinese places.

They tend to use some no-name rock fish with big, thick bones, which makes the eating much easier.

Cheaper, too.