Several years ago, one of my favorite cooks— who still works with me today—had just started in the kitchen. She made the mistake of letting me know that she had a fear of fish and could not even stand seeing them in the walk-in. When I brought a large container filled with whole snapper to her station, she thought it was a joke, but after a little hesitation she was able to conquer her fear and ultimately become a more confident cook. Many people would never consider buying a whole fish. The thought of cleaning, gutting and scaling is enough to make even the most intrepid cook have second thoughts. But despite the slight inconvenience of preparing a whole fish, there are many great reasons to add whole fish to your culinary repertoire. Whole fish are easier to identify, are more telling of their freshness and offer a number of added ingredients for enhancing your recipes. And as you’ll find as you experiment with cooking them, whole fish can be more flavorful than fillets.
The Benefits of Buying Fish Whole
Once a fish has been filleted, it becomes more challenging to verify that it’s the real thing. Is it a fillet of local rockfish or farmed tilapia? Wild king salmon or farmed Atlantic salmon? Even professional chefs can get confused when looking at ambiguous skinless fillets, and it’s no secret that mislabeled products are rampant in the seafood industry. The identifying features of the outside of a whole fish make this task much easier.
The best way to determine whether a fish is fresh is also to see it whole, as many of the key indicators are lost once the fish has been filleted. When I’m looking at a whole fish, the signs that will show it has probably just come out of the water are clear, bright eyes, iridescence on the skin, bright red or pink gills and slippery film over the scales and gills. By contrast, gray or brown gills, cloudy or wrinkled eyes, any discernible odor and dry scales and dents in the sides are all signs of an old fish.
Determining if a whole fish was frozen is a bit more difficult. Many fish are now frozen whole at sea or put in the freezer over the weekend if they don’t sell at the local market. It is actually easier to determine whether a fish fillet has been frozen than whether a whole fish has been frozen. The way to find out with either a fillet or a whole fish is to press your finger firmly but gently against the fish or fillet. If the fish is fresh, it should immediately return to its original shape once your finger is removed. If a dent remains on the fish or if it begins to seep liquid, there is a good chance it has been frozen.
Fish innards, like most offal, have not found much popularity in American cuisine. The most familiar piece of internal anatomy are the roe sacs, which, depending on the species, can be prepared as caviar or roasted whole. Our local salmon roe is a real delicacy and lightly cured and smoked cod and halibut roe are both quite good.
Starting with a whole fish is a strong reminder of the duty we have as cooks to respect life and the environment.
But in many parts of the world, almost every portion of the fish is used, and they offer some exciting possibilities to the adventurous cook. The eyes are prized in China and Japan. Airbladders are used to make curries in Southeast Asia. Fins, liver and milt have also been used by various cultures and are purported to have medicinal benefits. The skeletons of small fish like sardines can be fried until crispy and eaten like chips. Fish skins can also be partially dried and puffed in hot oil like chicharrones. I have even seen Hawaiians eat fresh tuna hearts like sashimi. But as with other adventurous delicacies, like wild mushrooms, some fish offal is toxic. Be sure to first confirm the safety of each part of each species before you prepare it.
Once a fish has been gutted and filleted, you are left with the head and skeleton. Depending on the species, these can be used to make stock. In general, I prefer less fatty fish for making stock. A lean fish like halibut will result in a clear stock with subtle flavor. Stock made from a fatty fish like salmon will be cloudier and have a stronger fish flavor because of the high fish oil content. (See recipe, RECIPES tab at www.ediblemontereybay.com.)
Where to Find Your Fish
Unfortunately, finding local seafood is no easy task. The truth is that a majority of our local fish is being exported to the highest bidder. The best source for local fish is always direct from the fisherman, but this isn’t always possible. A good strategy is to develop a relationship with people at the local fish market and trust them to lead you in the right direction. In Monterey, there are still a few family-owned fish markets at the end of Wharf No. 2 where fresh local fish can be found. My suggestion is to head to the wharf around mid-morning and ask around to see what is fresh and local. It may require some waiting (which can be quite pleasurable especially if Lulu’s has a table out front), but with some patience you are likely to find what you are looking for. (For more information about sourcing fish around our region, see “LOCAL FOOD GUIDES” tab on our website.)
A whole fish will yield somewhere between 40–60% of its total weight in fillets or steaks, depending on the skill of the butcher and variety of fish. Salmon is close to 60%, while black cod, with their large heads, falls closer to 40%. As a ballpark measure, you can count on about a 50% yield when shopping for your fish. For a casual home dinner or barbecue, 6–8 ounces is a good-sized portion, so the easiest method for calculating how much whole fish you’ll need is to just plan on one pound per person.
When you go into local markets, it is important to remember that the majority of the fish you are likely to encounter are farm-raised imports. Fish like pompano, mullet and tai snapper are all conveniently sized and appealing to the eye but should generally be avoided. I don’t say this because they are bad fish, but rather due to the fact that these species are often raised on farms with unsanitary conditions, and differentiating between wild caught and consciously raised fish can be challenging. Your goal should be to find a hook and line- caught local fish. Depending on the season, you might be able to find a variety of rockfish, lingcod, black cod, sand dabs, sole, halibut and others. You might also convince one of your friends to go in with you on a larger catch, like a tuna or king salmon.
For the ultimate fish-sourcing adventure, you might consider taking one of the local fishing charters and try catching your own.
Cleaning Your Fish
Once you have your fish home, you will need to clean it. To start, you will want to remove its scales. Fish scales are very messy and have a tendency to fly in all directions, so I recommend doing it outside under the hose and wearing eye protection. All you need to do is scrape against the scales using a spoon or the back of a knife.
Next you will want to gut your fish. Because the various digestive juices can be damaging to the meat if the entrails are left inside, it is not uncommon to see fish already gutted before they arrive at the market. If the fish has not been gutted, most fishermen and markets are more than happy to clean your fish for you, especially if you show your appreciation with a small tip. For most people, this is a cleaner and more practical option than doing it at home.
If your fish has not been cleaned, you can either remove the guts or carefully cut around them when you fillet the fish. If you want to remove the guts yourself, simply take the tip of a sharp knife and make an incision along the belly toward the head, gently pulling the skin away from the guts so as not to rupture anything. Once you have made the slit, pull out the guts and then cut the tissue that connects them to the base of the head. At this point, you can rinse the cavity of the fish.
Now your fish is ready to cook whole or fillet. How you fillet the fish depends on what species it is. There are several methods and online tutorials, but my best piece of advice is to always keep the edge of your knife along the bones. As long as you are carefully working your way next to the bones, you can’t do too much damage to the fillet.
Removing a piece of fish from a Styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic is an incredibly impersonal event. Ultimately, as with all good cooking, preparing a whole fish is about creating a personal connection with the ingredients. It is about understanding that the fish is more than a chunk of flesh—it has a story that must be respected. Starting with a whole fish is a strong reminder of the duty we have as cooks to respect life and the environment.
John Cox is the executive chef at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar restaurant in Big Sur. He is a frequent contributor to Edible Monterey Bay.
RECIPES: For two recipes using whole locally caught fish, below and p. 28