The Whole Fish I
by Mark R. Vogel

            This is   the first of a two-part article about selecting and cooking whole fish.  That’s right, the whole fish…..from the head to the tail.  The first half will focus on choosing and cleaning the fish while next week we’ll delve into the cooking with a yummy recipe of broiled whole fish with ponzu sauce.

Many home cooks are intimidated by the prospect of cooking an entire fish.  They blankly stare at them in the case, befuddled as to what to do with them and inevitably opt for the pre-cut fillets instead.  For most people this is due to anxiety about how to pick, clean and cook a whole fish.  But of course there are those who are grossed out by the head, the bones, and in general viewing an animal in its entirety that they plan to consume.  There’s not much hope for the latter group but if you hold no such sensitivities and simply need some know-how, then it’s time to tackle the situation, (pardon the pun). 

Why bother cooking a whole fish as opposed to the pre-cut, packaged fillets?  I can give you two good reasons:  taste and economics.  Almost any creature cooked with its structural anatomy in tact will taste better than its dissected counterpart.  All meat is more succulent when cooked on the bone.  The same applies to shelled creatures.  Shrimp and lobster will exude more flavor when cooked in their shell.  Thus, a whole fish will render a richer taste than the boneless fillets.  Economically speaking, a whole fish is usually less per pound since it is less labor intensive.  And depending on how sophisticated a cook you are, should you choose to cut off the fillets, you can use the remaining bones and head for homemade fish stock. 

            The first and probably most important issue when selecting fish is determining freshness.  Fish deteriorate quicker than red meats or chicken and thus there’s a narrower window of time before their flavor suffers.  First, has your purveyor stored the fish properly?  Whole fish should be gutted as soon after catching as possible and packed in flaked or chopped ice.  The body cavity should be filled with ice as well.  Once the fish expires the entrails quickly decompose and the gastrointestinal acids will begin corroding the surrounding flesh imparting a darkish or brownish hue.  Thus, always inspect the belly cavity of your whole fish.  Be suspect of markets that have their whole fish laying on top of ice, (as opposed to packed inside it), or worse yet, displaying whole un-gutted fish, be them in or on the ice.

            Next, check the eyes.  They should be bright and limpid.  If the fish looks like it just lost a brawl, (as evidenced by inflamed red or black eyes), avoid it.  The gills should be bright red.  The skin should be firm.  When pressed the depression left by your finger should spring back readily.  If not, make a steak instead.  Finally, as contradictory as this sounds, the fish should not smell fishy.  A strong fishy odor is a sure sign of spoilage.  At most there should be a light fish scent and a noticeable whiff of the ocean. 

            Obviously the proximity required to the fish to check the cavity, eyes, gills, skin and smell, requires a cooperative fish merchant.  A reputable fish monger who respects fresh fish and the discerning customers who buy them will not balk at your scrutiny.  If they do, buy your fish elsewhere. 

            On a positive note, the greatest drudgery of dealing with whole fish, namely the cleaning of them, can usually be avoided.  Any fish dealer, even the clerks in the supermarket, are prepared to clean your fish if necessary.  You may also request that the fins, particularly the dorsal fin be severed.  Removal of the dorsal fin in particular facilitates easier carving later.  Finally, if you cannot overcome your timorousness and must cook your fish sans head, they will certainly oblige your decapitational request.

            However, if you’d like to clean your own fish, it’s more messy than it is arduous.  You’ll need a fish scaler and a tolerance for cleaning multitudinous, errant scales from all over your kitchen, (they tend to fly off erratically).  Place the fish in your sink to try and contain the fusillade.  Simply run the scaler over its body until all the scales are removed.  Next, place the fish on a cutting board and cut off all the fins, (except the tail), with a sharp pair of kitchen shears.  Finally, cut the fish open along the belly, remove all the entrails, and then wash the fish thoroughly with cold water.  Some chefs also snip off the gills prior to cooking. 

            Join us next week at “Food for Thought” as we discuss the cooking of whole fish. 


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