one fish, two fish
May 3, 2008

Some things about fish: They bite (and their teeth stick like burrs, so you have to tear flesh to detach your thumb). The scent of fish blood will evoke the feral in even the most urban and domesticated of housecats. Intestines are disgusting no matter where they come from.

It turns out that my fish-filleting skills leave a bit to be desired (Chef: "Stop! Stop! Stop! You're destroying this fish!"), so I hie myself to Greenmarket to purchase a practice specimen. Of course, by the time I make my way to North Slope, there aren't a lot of options left, but I want something cheap anyway, in case I hack it to pieces. I don't know much about bluefish other than it's $2.50 a pound and seems to have plenty of flesh, but it's as good a place to start as any.

I get it on ice and am faring well removing the gills (whose feathery consistency makes my skin crawl—a sort of fingernails-on-the-blackboard for my sense of touch). I split open the stomach and remove the guts—not pretty, but I manage. I try to scrape off all the seemingly endless scales without clogging up the sink. I slice off the head in one nice stroke (courtesy of my newly water stone–sharpened knife). It's around this time that I note that my—already infamously off-balanced—cat is behaving more strangely than I've ever seen before. There was some brief growling before she planted herself at my feet and began writhing on her back in between my legs in what can only be described as desperation. Now, we cook quite a bit of fish in this apartment. We even consume several meals of raw seafood a week. Lily has never acted this way before. So I can only assume that it's the smell of the fish blood or fish head that's triggering this spasm.

Once I rinse head and bones (degorger) and get them into a stockpot for fumet, Lily goes back to her regularly scheduled program of sleeping at the foot of my bed, and I return to the four fillets I've successfully carved from the bluefish carcass. The thing is—bluefish is really kind of blue. It has a slug-like consistency. There's a thick rust-red bloodline running down the center. In fact, it's pretty ugly, and it is becoming clear to me why it was the last guy in the bin. Its flesh doesn't stay together well, and I'm not at all convinced anyone would want to eat it. I'm regretting telling Tracy and Cyrus to be home for dinner. But I figure there's an easy way to discover what happens when you cook it. I take the fillet closest to falling apart (I'd tried to remove the bloodline) and pop it into a skillet with some canola oil, salt and pepper. The flesh turns reassuringly white (albeit with a slight blue-grey tinge) and I douse it with lemon juice for a perfectly tasty little lunch.

My market shopping was done without a list, so I'm missing a few key items, both for the fumet and my en papillote. But I'm managing pretty well with the use-up-everything-in-the-fridge philosophy. I still have a bag of (now somewhat wrinkled) pearl onions, which stand in for shallots, onions and leeks, and my fumet is heavy on the mushroom trimmings with the moldy layers peeled off (leftover from the same meal). New Greenmarket-bought baby bellas become mushroom duxelles (in class my partner and I mistakenly added too much lemon, but Chef praised the choice, so I repeat it here), and I follow with similarly prepared grated zucchini. All of it gets wrapped up in parchment with the fillets topped with lemon zest and slices to await dinnertime.

Then I decide to start reading about bluefish. It turns out to be high in omega-3 fatty acids, but notoriously fishy and oily. Bluefish are fighters and have strong enough teeth to bite through reels, which makes them a favorite of sport fishermen. Bluefish has to be cooked fresh or it won't taste good at all. Cooking with acidity is the best way to counteract the strength of flavor. Even though I've done this—and taste-tested—I'm concerned about my finished product. I stick a particularly acidic wine in the fridge for backup.

But of course it turns out fine. Tracy notes a blue shadow beneath the milky-moist flesh, but our bluefish en papillote is not at all fishy. We scrape up everything left on the plate with buttered sourdough toasts. Homework tastes pretty good.

So the next step is to go out and catch the fish myself—yet another urban dilemma.