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Down to the Bones: Conquering Whole Fish

Most cooks can roast a chicken or bake a ham, so why do we quail at the thought of cooking whole fish? Poet and food writer Autumn Giles meditates on that question in today’s guest post. Want to read and hear more of Autumn’s work? She shares the gluten-free food she cooks and preserves on Autumn Makes & Does and hosts the food-and-writing podcast Alphabet Soup (and check out my interview on Alphabet Soup if you’re so inclined).

I learned early how to gut a fish. Kneeling on newspapers in the kitchen, I watched my dad start with the scaling, as easy and unnerving as petting a dog against the grain of its hair. I didn’t get to look away when he stuck the point of his knife in the anus and dragged it toward the head, letting the guts slip out. It’s hard to believe that a little girl could get excited about gutting fish, but I did because it meant that we would eat them and that the day had been good.

In the kitchen, the worst is already over. At the river, it was my dad’s job to the knock the keepers in the head with heavy end of a fishing pole and my duty to release the others. I held their heads upstream, waiting to feel their furious muscles in my hands when they were ready to swim away. Some of the most lucid and wholly joyful childhood memories I have are at the river or shortly after.

whole porgy
Unfortunately, my affinity for fish seems to have been a casualty of growing up. I’m guessing I tucked it away around the time when it became improper for a girl to betray any tolerance for the slippery and slimy. Maybe I did a little too good a job internalizing that revulsion because somewhere along the line, I became really freaked out by fish. I’m talking tears-in-my-eyes, heart-racing scared. I have no idea why, but enough was finally enough. In the spirit of being a lady who doesn’t mind a little muck and in the name of conquering kitchen fears (I’m going to check deep-frying off my list next), I set out to cook a whole fish solo for the first time.

I quickly realized that the experience of buying and cooking a whole fish is quite similar to getting one out of the river: once it’s in your kitchen, the hardest part is done. Actually cooking a whole fish is startlingly simple. It’s the stuff before cooking that might trip you up.

If you’re concerned about sustainability, an easy step to take is to buy from a fishmonger who is local to you and/or specializes in sustainable seafood. After years of watching folks line up at the P.E. & D.D. seafood stand at the Union Square Greenmarket, I joined the line and bought two of the cheapest things with heads and tail fins: Long Island Porgy. For those of you with more foresight than me, the Seafood Watch Program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium has a searchable database that simplifies choosing sustainable seafood. They even have an app!

The fish I bought was already gutted and scaled. You can ask your fishmonger to do this for you on the off chance that it’s not already done. And what about the bones? At just under a pound each, my little porgies were too small to even think about de-boning, but just like my favorite cuts of pork and chicken for braising, the bones lend flavor so I happily left them intact. Even porgy, which has a reputation for having lots of tiny bones, was relatively easy to remove the bones from and eat once it was cooked. Plus, you’ll want to have the singular experience of grabbing the tail and pulling the skeleton up from the cooked fish, head and all.

For guidance on how to actually cook the fish, I watched this helpful (albeit silly) video from Melissa Clark on roasting whole fish. I treated my fish very similarly to how I treat a whole chicken: rinsed them, patted them dry, rubbed them inside and out with olive oil, and gave them a generous sprinkling of kosher salt. I had lemon thyme and garlic on hand—fish will take just about any flavor you throw at them—so I stuffed a little bit of each in the fishes’ cavities and baked them for fifteen minutes at 400˚. I used Melissa Clark’s trick for checking if the fish was done: stick a fork in along its backbone and pull up on the flesh to see that it’s opaque and flaky.

whole roasted fish
When the fish came out of the oven it looked darn pretty, but I had a hard time wrapping my head around the logistics of actually eating it. Turns out, that part is dead simple too. The top layer of skin peels right off and you can either lift the meat off the skeleton using a fork, or leave it whole and eat around the bones. The little girl in me who looked forward to gutting fish suggests the latter.

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  1. I learned to gut a fish as a child, too. But that did not prepare me for being served a whole fish at my first dinner in France. But I persevered. At the French farmers’ market, I always bought fish from the fishmonger. He would gut it and wrap it in newsprint. No plastic!

  2. Alexandra, it’s funny how between childhood and adulthood our brains want to convince us that something we were so familiar w/ is gross. I love the image of a fish wrapped in newsprint though!

  3. Nice piece with beautiful photos. It’s a shame that a fishmonger does not live among us in my humble burg!

  4. I just saw this re-tweeted (didn’t even read it), but was compelled to pick up a few trout at the market today. So then I had to come back and find the actual post. I am so thankful you talk about the ick factor because that is exactly what stands between me and cooking a whole fish. Gonna face my fears tomorrow night!

    1. Wow! I can’t believe you were compelled to buy fish from a single tweet- and I’m so excited you’re taking it on! Let us know how it turned out…

  5. So, I kind of chickened out: Got the husband to do the rubbing and seasoning. But WOW. Delicious! Cooked it slowly in the toaster oven since it’s too hot to turn on the oven, and it was so amazing. And ridiculously easy. Someday I will even do it myself. I think I won’t be spending money on more expensive, less sustainable fish anymore!

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