Life List #95: Cook a whole fish.
Have you ever put off doing something because it seemed overwhelming, complicated, daunting, only to find when you finally did it, that it wasn’t a big deal at all? I do that all the time. All. the. time. I build things up so much in my mind and get so anxious over them, panic over them, that I put them off, procrastinate, to protect myself. I do it at home. I do it at work. I do it while traveling. I do it with my life list. I do it with my life.
In the same way that I leave work projects until 4pm on a Friday, or leave making a dentist appointment until it’s beyond necessary, I leave things like “cook a whole fish” on my list of life goals for years.
Cooking a whole fish seems like something only an accomplished cook should tackle. I mean, fish comes pre-filleted at the grocery store for a reason. There is no real justification for a single girl cooking dinner for herself to buy a fish whole. Or cook it whole.
Still, whole fish is one of my favorite meals. I lavished in it in Asia, buying dirt-cheap fishes stuffed and topped with ginger and garlic and a varieties of flavors on the beaches of Thailand and Cambodia and Indonesia. Keeping the fish whole, protected by its skin and bones, kept the meat juicy and succulent. The skin itself would be crisp and spicy. Plus you’d get that sweet little nugget of tender cheek meat. I loved peeling off the little morsels with my fingers and sucking them between my teeth.
Eating a whole fish is an experience. A delicious experience.
In 2010, I added “cook a whole fish” to my life list. I don’t remember why I added it that day or what sparked the inspiration. Perhaps I was watching Food Network. Maybe I was reading Bon Appétit or sorting through my recipe collection. But I’m sure I added it because the thought of cooking a whole fish seemed overwhelming, complicated, daunting.
So daunting, I suppose, that eight years later, I still had never cooked that whole fish myself.
I built it up so much in my head as this overwhelming, complicated, daunting thing that it wasn’t to be an every day meal. If I were to cook a whole fish it was to be for a special occasion. A holiday. An anniversary (ha!). One of those dinner parties I thought I’d be throwing monthly as an almost forty-year-old.
I certainly didn’t set out to cook a whole red snapper this weekend. I didn’t set out to tick off a life list goal I set eight years ago. I didn’t have a special occasion, a holiday, an anniversary, a dinner party. I just wanted to make dinner.
I had found a recipe online for grilled snapper topped with a mango and red onion salad. It sounded tasty and the fruity salsa topping would make a refreshing meal on a hot June night.
The recipe called for an entire fish but, honestly, it didn’t even occur to me to use one. When I set out to the grocery store I wrote on my shopping list “trout,” because the Mariano’s I was heading to almost always had skin-on trout fillets that were almost whole but not quite. They’re thin enough to be perfect for a single meal but meaty enough to be substantial. I often buy them to stuff with onions and soy sauce or walnut pesto. It was the perfect, manageable, substitution.
But, when I got to the fish counter at Mariano’s, there was no trout there. There were filets of salmon. There were filets of cod. There were filets of catfish. But none of those seemed right to pair with the mango and onion and cilantro that were already in my basket. And I didn’t want to trudge back to the produce section to return and reconvene.
So I stood staring at the seafood display going back and forth, waving away the butcher when he first asked what he could help with and wavering between what fish might work. I debated Mahi Mahi, a fish I always associate with those tropical flavors the mango would bring. But it’s really not my favorite fish.
And then I locked eyes with the red snapper. Literally locked eyes. It was plump. It was bright orange. It. had. eyes. It was whole. And the recipe did, actually, originally, call for a whole red snapper.
But I couldn’t buy a whole fish. You don’t just buy a whole fish. Do you?
A second butcher then came and asked what I wanted and, in a panic, without really thinking, said “one red snapper.” I guess I was getting that snapper.
I didn’t even think to ask if it was cleaned out. If it was scaled. If he could remove those beady eyes.
On my way home I actually Googled “how to clean a fish” on my phone, just in case it was whole whole fish and came with, well, whatever is inside a fish. And, when I got home, the first thing I did was check to see if if had been cleaned, it had, if it had been scaled, it had. Those eyes were there though. Those beady little eyes.
The recipe I had called to grill the fish and, shockingly, my 900 square foot apartment with no backyard nor direct access to the outside world nor ventilation, does not come with a grill. And, shockingly, I have no idea how to work a grill anyways. (That is a life list item for another day.)
So I Gooogled directions on how to cook a whole snapper in the oven. And… it’s easy? Make some scores in the skin. Season. Put it on a baking sheet and throw it in the oven at 425 for 25 to 30 minutes. And…that’s it.
I really don’t know what I was thinking cooking a whole fish entailed. Expert-level flipping? Precision timing? Guts and glory? I really didn’t know why I thought it would be so intimidating.
Really, except for time in oven, cooking a whole fish is no different that cooking a fillet.
Except, that is, for the outcome. In the end you end up with a whole cooked fish. A fish with juicy and succulent meat. A fish with crisp flavorful skin. A fish with tender little cheek morsels.
A completely uncomplicated, un-daunting fish that is anything but underwhelming. A meal that would be an amazing dish for a special occasion, a holiday, an anniversary, a dinner party or, you know, a random Saturday night alone.
“Cook a whole fish” was number 95 on my life list.
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