Last week, Dave faced what might have been his biggest photography challenge to date: He had to photograph a whole fish for one of the Well Fed 2 divider pages.
For most photographers, once they’d figured out the technical details, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But Dave isn’t most photographers. For starters, he’s more awesome than the average person. And secondly, he’s allergic to fish — “rush to the hospital” allergic — which means that the sight and the smell and the mere idea of fish is nearly intolerable.
But he’s a pro, so we hit up the fish counter at Central Market and came home with a whole red snapper. Then he set up the lights, and took this photo. Cool, right?!
Then the baton fish was passed to me. For the first time ever, I was going to grill a whole fish.
I did some quick online research and started daydreaming about the luscious dinner that was in my future: tender, flaky fish… crispy skin… bragging rights. I was ready! I even talked it up on Twitter.
The first step was scaling the sucker. It was actually much easier than I thought it would be. I just ran a butter knife along the body and the scales popped off. I should also mention that many of them escaped the confines of the sink and fluttered through the air like translucent confetti. I’m still finding them on the floor and in corners of the countertop.
Next was removal of the fins. I liked this part much, much less. This was the moment when I started anthropomorphizing my red snapper. Cutting through the fins with my kitchen shears was gross, and I began to feel like I was dismembering a dead pal.
I soldiered on — and so did Mr. Snapper. I stuffed his belly cavity with sliced lemons, course salt, and pepper. Then I slit his skin (Sorry, Mr. Snapper!), rubbed salt in the
wounds slits, and rubbed him it with ghee.
After preheating the grill on high so it was scorchingly hot, I transferred Mr. Snapper to his pyre (ghee-side down), closed the lid, and waited about 7 minutes. Note that I never did remove that bottom fin. Clearly, a sharper knife is needed (and probably, if there are any fishing aficianados out there, you’re cringing at my technique).
Note the awesome steam vent created by the slits. Weird! Funny! Disturbing!
When it was time, I used two spatulas to flip
him it over. I’d like to say that it looked delicious and that I couldn’t wait to eat it. But by this point, it smelled pretty fishy, and the beautiful pink color had been replaced by a muddy brown. Dave, too, was losing enthusiasm for the project. His aversion to fish was only increasing with each step of the process. He took several photos of the cooked fish, but this is the one he gave me to use in the post. I think it accurately summarizes his feelings about the experience.
When the fish was cooked — and I have to admit, it was perfectly cooked: tender and flaky inside, crisp and flavorful outside — I removed the skin and fillets from the bones. The tasty part looked like this:
The rest looked like this:
And it tasted… super fishy.
Hmmm. Yes. I guess I’m not a fan of red snapper.
So that’s our fish story.
Not my greatest kitchen experience, but sometimes, cooking needs to be about experimentation — even if the results aren’t the best dinner ever.
How To Grill A Whole Fish (Sort Of)
There is a silver-lining take-away to this story: The grilling technique I learned from Cook’s Illustrated works great. If you find yourself in possession of a whole fish, here are the details for how to grill it to crisp-tender perfection. NOTE: These instructions are for a fish that weighs up to 3 pounds.
1. Heat a gas grill with all burners on high with the lid closed until very hot, about 15-20 minutes.
2. Clean the fish: remove scales, fins, etc. (Most fish mongers will do this for you, so when you buy your fish, ask them to get it ready for cooking. You can then avoid having fish scale confetti all over your kitchen.)
3. Cut a lemon into thin slices and tuck inside the fish, sprinkling the insides generously with salt and pepper. (You could also add leaves of fresh herbs here, too.) Cut a few parallel slits in the skin on both sides of the fish. Rub the outside with coarse salt, then ghee.
4. Place fish on the grill and cook, with the lid closed, until bottom side of the fish is browned and crisp, about 6-7 minutes. Use two spatuals to carefully flip the fish over and grill ad additional 6-8 minutes, until the skin is blistered and crisp.
5. Use two spatulas to transfer to a platter or baking sheet, then carefully remove the flesh and skin from the bones. This is way easier than it sounds — the skeleton comes right out.
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