Some Thoughts on the Cooking of Fish

Deeply ingrained in all of us is the desire, or duty, to act in such a way as to promote longevity. We refrain from running with scissors. We choose not to stick our heads into alligators’ mouths. And we feel guilty when we eat the stuff that’s not good for us.

On a recent visit to the supermarket I bought a large container of oatmeal. Two or three times a week now I follow the instructions on the box and make a bowl of the stuff, which I lavishly sex up with raisins, molasses, brown sugar or dried mango. I have fought back the urge to add a splash of brandy or Drambuie. “You will do no such thing!” says my righteous half, after which I’ll add some crumbled up Girl Scout cookies to the gruel.

In the aim of improving health, many of us are eating more red meat, or less red meat, or more or less carbohydrates, or less bad carbohydrates. We search for what we believe will be the “right” diet.

Maybe you’re like me, and have been trying to eat more fish. (The great P.G. Wodehouse’s “Bertie” character thought his gentleman’s gentleman “Jeeves” was so smart because he ate fish as a child.) You fry it, poach it, boil it, bake it, broil it or even nuke it. You get bored and want to try something new. About a week ago there was an article in the New York Times Wednesday food section. The author known as the Minimalist says old fashioned chefs claim fish should be cooked with the head attached. They say there’s more flavor, that it tastes better. There was no mention of whether the fish wants to look at you while it’s being cooked. Or eaten. Anyway, I wanted to try cooking a fish with the head on.

My buddy Kate loaned me her mini Weber, and I’ve been lighting it up nearly every night since I moved back into my condo. I’ll sit in a folding chair on my patio, look out over downtown and the bay, and slowly empty a cocktail shaker of Manhattans. Attention alternates between the coals and the New Yorker.

The fish chosen for this experiment was a tilapia purchased for about $1.50 the night before. I named the fish Clarence. Don’t ask.

Before I found Clarence I had chosen a package containing two of his cousins next to him. His cousins still had their heads, but also their guts. A small note on Clarence’s package said “cleaned”, and there was a surgical looking slit along his tummy. I put his cousins back and put Clarence in my shopping cart.

On the big night I got the coals going, and made some fish-enhancing Manhattans. In the mixing bowl, with a tiny rubber ducky from China, Clarence was taking a bath in white wine and lemon juice. Next to Clarence’s steel bathtub a nice piece of wild steelhead salmon splashed about in an aluminum foil pool of butter and Marsala. This was my backup plan in case I did something wrong to Clarence.

When the coals were ready I gently grabbed Clarence by the tail and laid him down. I like my salmon on the rare side so I didn’t put the two pieces of fish on at the same time. After a little while, and a lot of fretting, a small frown seemed to appear on Clarence’s face. I turned away and took a large pull of my Manhattan.

One of the building’s cats came over for a look, but I dispatched him with a forceful lecture on etiquette.

Feeling a bit braver, I thought it was time to inspect Clarence. Maybe you are one of those grillers who believes in turning things only once. I am not one of those. Frequent turning, in fact, well, probably does nothing, but it makes me feel more involved, more in control. I used the classic modified Dallas grip on my new tongs, and reached for Clarence’s tail. There was a little resistance when I turned him over, and you could see that part of his side had stuck to the grill, so that some of the meat was exposed. It looked like he was cooking nicely, but I had hoped to keep him intact. At this point I put the salmon on the grill and closed the top. More or less satisfied with the progress, I took another healthy sip – well, swig actually – on my Manhattan. Things were shaping up nicely. The sunset wanted to get in on the act.

In the hopes of optimizing pleasure I decided to keep the heat relatively low. I thought if the grill was too hot, then timing would become crucial, and for my first time I didn’t mind taking longer to cook Clarence, as long as he was cooked just right.

After a little bit it was time to turn both fish again, and they both were looking good. Clarence had a rather blank look on his face, and smelled pretty good, but the salmon smelled really good. About twenty yards away I spotted the cat watching closely with his binoculars, so I reloaded my water pistol. A man can’t have too many water pistols.

I decided that Clarence was ready, and as this had taken longer than I had imagined, my stomach was starting to rumble. With some trepidation I grabbed my tongs, the latest GrillPride X4000’s, with cavity back grippers, tungsten inserts and perimeter weighting, designed by Bob Sklebowski – he’s considered the Ben Hogan of tong designers – and reached for Clarence.

With Clarence’s tail in my grasp, I gingerly lifted him up and was about to inspect him before putting him on a plate. But at that instant about 95% of Clarence’s body, the meaty part, fell with a splat on the ground while his skeleton stayed safely in the tongs. In my shock I didn’t notice if Clarence’s now dirty face had a small smile or not, but I was so surprised and upset at losing the fish after all that work I grabbed what I could of him and threw him over the bushes in the direction of the cat.

I received no feline ‘thank you’ note, but the salmon was delicious.


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