EDIBLE BASICS: RED FISH, BLUE FISH, FLAT FISH, WHOLE FISH?
PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA / STYLED BY CATRINE KELTY
When I was a kid, my family spent our summer vacation in Eastham on the outer Cape, where my dad and I regularly fished the gentle estuaries inside Nauset’s barrier beach. We’d hop into a tiny, borrowed Boston Whaler, then motor up to the top of Town Cove to buy boxes of seaweed-packed sand worms, the best-suited bait for luring hungry flounder and fluke from the sea floor. We’d drop our baited lines, bounce the weighted hooks across the sandy bottom and wait, every tiny nibble a sign that the fish were down there—just be patient, and they will come.
My dad did most of the work. He’d bait my rod (when you’re nine, sand worms are gross, and they bite!), and if I had a fish on my line, he’d hold it steady and take it off the hook, chasing after it if it flopped frantically around the bottom of the boat. Some days we didn’t catch anything at all, but we were often successful enough to feed our extended vacationing family on 4 or 5 nice, fat flounder.
Once we were home, my dad would stand over the sink and clean our catch, rinsing blood and guts away and trimming fins and gills, a business he learned from his mother when he was a kid camping in Northern California, fishing for river trout. Even now, when I'm breaking down a large fish or gutting a small one, that sweet, mineral scent of fish blood and innards takes me back to those afternoons watching Dad and his skilled knife work, and I feel a strange kindred link to my late grandmother, through a lesson on fish gutting, passed down from mother to son to daughter.
If we’d caught a large fluke, he’d cut the filets from the frames, then season, flour, and fry them in butter. But some of the smaller flounder—never more than 1 pound each—could be left whole, dotted with cold butter and roasted in a hot oven, dressed only with a shower of lemon at the table. Simplicity was key with fish this fresh.
I loved those early days on the water—and the resulting meals even more—and I learned over those years that one of the great pleasures (and luxuries) of living by the sea is knowing that right there, swimming along under your gently rocking boat, is the freshest, and freest meal of all. As long as you’re in the right spot, at the right tide, and have time and patience aplenty, the sea will provide you with a delicious, and sustainable, reward.
I still spend my summers on the Cape, but now I explore a different marine landscape: the bays and salt ponds of Vineyard Sound. My family likes to fish together most weekends, beginning in late May, grabbing rods after supper when the moon is bright, casting into a ripping channel from the beach or the end of the jetty. When the massive (and often elusive, to us) striped bass is running, it’s our prime target, but with a 28-inch allowable minimum we rarely catch any big enough to keep on our nighttime forays.
So some weekends, we plan ahead and leave at the crack of dawn, packing coffee and breakfast to take aboard the boat in search of strong currents and rip tides, a stripers’ favorite habitat. In May and June, we get to fish with my husband’s uncle, a marine biologist from Auckland who comes every year to work at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and can identify just about everything in the sea. He’s an expert with a filet knife, knows the most humane way to kill a fish, and how that practice will affect its flavor once cooked. From him we learned the transformative power of bleeding a bluefish right after it’s caught: what’s so often considered an off-putting, oily, and “fishy” fish, is rendered delicate and mild with this quick trick, leaving a flavor and texture more akin to sea bass than sardines. It’s changed our opinion of the mighty bluefish forever.
I’d say once or twice a summer someone lands a “keeper” striped bass or a big, glistening blue, and as soon as it’s reeled in we’re already planning how we’ll cook it and what garden vegetables will go best on the side. Those are the lucky days. Generally, though, we’ll go home with the easy catch, species often derided as “trash fish” since they’re less sexy than the prized striper and not as much fun to fight on the line as a blue. However, scup (also called porgy or sea bream), black sea bass, and even the unsightly—but delicious—sea robin and dogfish (a small, local shark) are all excellent eating once you know how to handle them.
We cook what we catch, but on days when we return to shore empty handed, chances are pretty good that Mr. Bliss—our neighbor and fisherman extraordinaire—will have dropped by with an “extra” bluefish or two, so fish is on the table at least once a week all season long. If we’re cooking the spoils of a large striper or bluefish, it’s always fileted and usually grilled, doused in a sauce of chopped garden herbs and lemon, heads and frames reserved for stock. But the smaller species, the “pan-sized” fish like scup and black bass, are best roasted whole (well-scaled and gutted), since cutting around all those bones, fins, and spines is pretty difficult for an amateur fish cutter, no matter how sharp the knife. Plus, the meat is much easier to extract from the skeleton once cooked—the bones just lift away from the meat! When you cook it on the bone, you’ll actually get a better yield per fish, not to mention the delectable cheek and head meat, and an easy rich stock made with the leftover frames.
Most of all, cooking fish on the bone just tastes better, and is practically foolproof, with a short blast in a hot oven and little chance of overcooking, even if you leave it for 10 or 20 extra seconds under the heat. Try that with a thin filet! Sure, a boneless filet of fish is easy to cook, and it benefits from being, well, boneless—but it’s the bones that give the fish so much flavor! And aesthetically speaking, no boneless filet can match the sight of a clear-eyed, silvery whole fish, stuffed with lemon and herbs and glistening with oil, ready for the oven or grill. It’s simply gorgeous.
When I set out to write this story about whole fish cookery, I had in mind to connect “nose-to-tail” eating back to fish, and to point out that the local food movement—both in restaurants and home kitchens—has wholeheartedly embraced eating the whole animal when it comes to barnyard livestock, so why shouldn’t fish get the same treatment? (If the often picked-clean cooler of organ meat, bones, and offal at my meat CSA is any indication, people are not squeamish about the wiggly bits; they’re not just ordering fried pigs’ tails and headcheese at their favorite restaurants, but also cooking with kidneys, marrow bones, and livers at home.) With fish, I wanted to prove, we could do the same thing—and eat sustainably at the same time—by buying a locally-caught fish, cooking it whole, and using nearly every part of the animal. We could support local fisheries, eat the freshest catch available, and savor every bit of it, using the remainders to make a collagen–rich stock for soup and chowder.
But then I took a look at our local supermarket fish counters.
At store after store, in a state that is home to America’s #1 fishing port (it’s New Bedford, incidentally), I was hard-pressed to find any local fish at all, let alone whole ones. The rare whole fish stocked by most local grocers is branzino— farm-raised and imported from Greece—or a snapper of some kind, generally from Florida. I found cases filled with filets of fatty, farm-raised salmon, pure-white Alaskan halibut, meaty pink swordfish steaks, and glistening red tuna. Recognizable, unchallenging, and easy to prepare. Aside from the typical and omnipresent slabs of Icelandic cod, Gloucester haddock, and off-grey Atlantic bluefish, they’re not local and rarely sustainable, not to mention already cut apart, with heads, tails, and frames discarded (imagine the waste!). How could I espouse whole fish cookery if the only people who could get their hands on an actual whole fish are either fishermen themselves, lucky enough to live near a real, honest-to-goodness fishmonger, or members of a Community Supported Fishery program?
While local whole fish was almost impossible to find at a grocery store, I did track it down at smaller, independent fish markets, and that’s what you’ll need to do, too. Reds’ Best in the Boston Public Market works directly with fishermen to bring in plentiful whole fish, and I’m told that after a few months of education, the public is beginning to buy more whole fish there. Along with skate wings, monkfish, dogfish, ocean perch and scup, they’re even selling cod heads at a steady clip! They’re a fantastic resource for once-ignored “trash fish,” often supplying these lesser-known species to other nearby markets, like New Deal Seafood in Cambridge. Captain Marden’s in Wellesley will bring in cleaned, scaled, local whole fish for you with 1-2 days’ notice, as will Wulf’s Fish Market in Brookline. The Whole Foods at Fresh Pond carries the largest selection of local whole fish I found in a supermarket in the greater Boston area, with an equally impressive array of whole fish from afar, like Spanish mackerel and Portuguese sardines. And the Cape Ann Fresh Catch community supported fishery program has a whole fish option, offering 4-6 pounds per week, and is priced very reasonably at $23 (at press time).
If you cannot find local whole fish in your area, ask for it. Use Red’s Best’s handy chart and find something right for the season. Fishmongers will listen to their customers, and, if enough people ask, perhaps they’ll carry it regularly. If Florida snapper or imported whole branzino is all you can find, though, you should still give these recipes a try to see for yourself how simple, delicious, and forgiving cooking a whole fish can be. Just mind the bones! …and then use them for your stock.
For more recipes for local fish, and information on sustainable fisheries, refer to Heather Atwood’s In Cod We Trust: From Sea to Shore, The Celebrated Cuisine of Coastal Massachusetts, Susan Pollack's The Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Cookbook, and Barton Seaver’s For Cod and Country: Simple, Delicious, Sustainable Cooking.
As a reference book, I am partial to The River Cottage Fish Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher. While the authors are based in the UK, we share many of the same species in our waters, and the illustrative photographs showing proper techniques for gutting and fileting, removing gills and fins, scaling and skinning are imperative when learning how to handle whole fish. They’ve also included infinitely useful recipes for smoking, grilling, roasting, poaching, salting and preserving all manner of seafood, including shellfish, crustaceans, and mollusks, freshwater fish, and even canned fish. A must have for any serious fish lover.
BOSTON AREA RESOURCES FOR LOCAL WHOLE FISH
Red’s Best at the Boston Public Market
100 Hanover Street, Boston
Captain Marden’s, Seafoods
279 Linden Street, Wellesley
New Deal Fish Market
622 Cambridge Street, Cambridge
Wulf’s Fish Market
409 Harvard Street, Brookline
Whole Foods Market Fresh Pond
200 Alewife Brook Parkway, Cambridge
Cape Ann Fresh Catch
Sarah Blackburn is a home cook, recipe developer, vegetable gardener and managing editor of Edible Boston. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org