Monday, July 11, 2011

One Fish, Two Fish, Dead Fish, Blue Fish

I'd been meaning to make a Moroccan recipe, Fish Baked with Almond Paste, for a while. The author of the cookbook where I found it tends to present needlessly elaborate recipes that sometimes take days to prepare, but I am starting to think that's what comes of Americans learning the "authentic" way to do something-- a romantic adherence to medieval methods of food preparation.

I don't eat fish very often, for many reasons.   One, it's fishy. Two, oceans are depleted. Three, I'm a woman of childbearing age. Standing at the fish counter trying to remember which fish are practically near extinction and which aren't is usually too overwhelming, especially since waiting my turn at Berkeley Bowl gives me plenty of time to contemplate the global consequences of my own consumption. Well, now there's an app for that. Yep, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's free "Seafood Watch" (category: Lifestyle) gives alternatives to overfished species, and lets you know when your favorite little fishy is relatively safe to eat. 

As it turns out, the striped bass listed as one of the kinds of fish I could use in this recipe is sustainably farmed in the US, and its wild US populations are well-managed too, so I figured it was time to give it a go. Even though the recipe called for a whole fish with tail and head intact, I figured Berkeley Bowl would have a nice tail-free fillet waiting for me.
Not ready to deal with the eyeballs.

Apparently not. The smallest of the bunch was two and a half pounds. It was definitely the longest packet I'd ever gotten from the meat counter. And it was the packet I least looked forward to opening. Once I got it home, I procrastinated in every way imaginable, not knowing quite how to deal with a whole fish.

After a phone conversation with my dad that confirmed that indeed, I needed to cut off the head and tail (and that the meat counter people would have done this for me with their super-sharp cleavers), I knew I couldn't put it off any longer, since the real offense would have been letting all that fresh fish go to waste. Forget the authenticity of the Moroccan preparation-- I was stuck in what seems to be a uniquely American dilemma: dealing with the too-vivid reminders that our food was a recently alive and sentient being. We only eat animals that have been skinned, drained, cleaned, ground, and sealed in cellophane.  We don't want to know where it came from or how it died.

Not ready to take the plastic bag off.
I buy whole chickens regularly, and don't really like when a few feathers are still left in the skin. I can't stand when I can tell the chicken has a bruise, since I am quite sure it happened during slaughter and am dismayed to know that the bird was handled roughly enough to bruise (granted, it was also handled roughly enough to die, but aren't there humane standards of slaughter that are intended to prevent unnecessary suffering?). The chickens, though, have been relieved of their heads, feet, and innards, and all that's left for me to do is rinse and roast, or rinse, cut, and freeze.

This fish staring at me had not been relieved of its anything. Its glittery scales kept coming off and landing on the floor. I discovered its mouth opened when I prodded its gills with my knife. I swear I wasn't playing with my food. I was just looking for the right placement of my knife to cut off the head. 

Scale, or contact lens?

Ultimately, I left the head on. I really didn't want to risk mangling the head and having the eyeballs pop out or something, or listen as the mouth gaped open while I cut through the neck. (Plus, I remembered a horrendous story my old veterinarian boss told me once about cutting off a dead Rottweiler's head for mandatory rabies testing...) I created two nice fillets for freezing, but was left with jiggly stomach stuff and a very gape-y head. I spent several minutes trying to disconnect the stomach parts from the throat parts, and really didn't need to see the hole in the fish's mouth from up through its stomach. Yet I found it all so logical and oddly interesting, like a biology class dissection that I never did in p.c. Berkeley.

This was not at all the Moroccan feast I'd planned. I wasn't one hundred percent sure I even wanted to eat the bass anymore. I took my dad's advice and used a few herbs and a few seasonings and a little lemon juice in the baking dish. While the finished product was tasty and my cats LOVED it, I am certain I would rather eat mountains of plain couscous than deconstruct a fish again. Am I guilty of being typically American? Perhaps. But perhaps also the authentic Moroccan method is to have the fishmonger gut the fish, since the recipe mentions not one word about doing it myself.

Moroccan almond mixture on the side, just for kicks.


  1. As the Dad mentioned here, I have to say this post tickles me. I sort of knew from the earlier conversation that troubles with the "sentient being" part would be coming, but I have to send kudos to my daughter for seeing the thing through, head and all. I wish it had been a more tasty experience, though. Sea bass is a lovely fish, especially when it's fresh. But so is being aware of what we're eating and where it comes from. In fact, in our rapidly shrinking times, it's probably the main thing.

  2. If I had to kill my own food, I'd be a vegetarian.