Swimming with the fishes
Ever walk past a tank of swimming fish in a grocery store’s seafood department and think to yourself, “Who the heck actually buys one of those?” Well, this week, for the benefit of my gazillions of weird food fans, the answer was, “I do!”
There’s something about asking for live food that seems both indulgent and disgusting. As I pointed at the ugly grey fish making sweet little kissy faces and ordered the poor grocery guy to chase him with the big net, I felt a pang of guilt that I would be responsible for taking him/her from a swimming state to a dinner plate, but I had to tell those sucky inner voices of mine to shut up. I am a meat-eater after all, at almost every single meal, and it’s hypocritical if I get turned off just because I have to watch the inevitable dirty work go down in person. I just saw someone’s Twitter description say, “If slaughterhouses had clear walls everyone would be vegetarian,” and although I’m sure this wasn’t intended to encourage me to watch my food getting killed, it did make me try to own the fact that I eat meat. If I continue to do it. Maybe the conclusion to this blog will be that I eventually become veggie. But not just yet.
Because I am a food journalist, I’ll describe one more disturbing experience that I had in eating a live fish. If you’re vegetarian, please turn away and wait for my next post. Grocery guy took out my flopping fish…
…and put it on the back counter beside a big rubber mallet. I was horrified, worried that I was about to see the fish get a violent whack on the head, but then I didn’t see it. Grocery guy lopped off all the fins and gutted and scaled the fish with robot-like efficiency, handing it to me after only about fifteen seconds in a plastic bag with the head on and the rest of the body intact. So I’m still left wondering – did I just miss the death blow, or did it not happen? Closer and closer to veganism every day. But why does meat have to taste so good?
And my day just got better and better. Now I had to prepare a whole fish for dinner that day (to take advantage of the “fresh meat”) and I was having friends over in the afternoon followed by piano lessons for my daughter which meant I wouldn’t be able to prep everything until after seven. Let me tell you, I wouldn’t recommend lopping off a fish’s head…
…while entertaining three moms and their kids, and I didn’t – I hacked it off with a dull knife feeling like an axe murderer before they arrived, wrapping the rest in foil, stuffing it with garlic, and baking it incognito while we all sipped coffee (aka wine).
I chose a recipe from Jamie Oliver’s Meals in Minutes because I was so pressed for time. Despite my adoration of Jamie Oliver, this cookbook kind of bugs me because the instructions are jumbled together to help home chefs with efficiency, popping out an entire meal at the end – I find this makes recipes difficult to modify and track at a glance. In this case, though, I needed Jamie’s help to throw a dinner together as quickly as possible, and I loved how it worked out. I’ll copy the entire recipe below so that you can see how the book works, and then I’ll describe how I modified it to prep as much as possible ahead, throwing the rest together post-piano. He includes a dessert and drink too, but I didn’t make those so I’ve omitted them.
Branzino (Recently Live Tilapia, for me) & Crispy Pancetta, Mashed Sweet Potatoes and Asian Greens
Mashed Sweet Potatoes
- 1 ½ pounds sweet potatoes
- 2 limes
- A small bunch of cilantro
- 2Tbsp mango chutney
- Soy sauce
- 1 fresh red chile
- 1 clove garlic
- Soy sauce
- 1 lime
- Sesame oil
- 1 bunch asparagus
- 1 head of broccoli
- 8 slices pancetta
- 4 x 6-ounce branzino fillets, skin on, scaled and pin-boned (for me this was one tilapia fish plus a few supplemental fillets of whitefish)
- 1Tsp fennel seeds
- 1 lemon
- Olive oil
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Sea salt & black pepper
To Start Get all your ingredients and equipment ready. Fill and boil the kettle. Put a large saucepan with a lid and a large frying pan on a medium heat.
Potatoes Wash the sweet potatoes, trim off any gnarly bits, then stab them a few times with a knife. Put in a large microwave-safe bowl, halve oneo f the limes and add to the bowl, then cover with a double layer of plastic wrap and microwave on full power for 12 minutes, or until cooked through.
Greens Seed and finely chop the chile, adding half to a large serving bowl and add 2 tablespoons of soy sauce and ¼ to 1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil. Squeeze in the juice of 1 lime and add a splash of sesame oil. Mix, taste, and adjust the soy sauce if needed. Trim the asparagus stalks. Quarter the head of the broccoli lengthways from the head to the base of the stalk.
Branzino Put the pancetta into the frying pan with a drizzle of olive oil. Keep an eye on it, turning when crispy. [When the pancetta has become golden] remove it to a plate, leaving the fat in the pan. Add the fish to the pan, skin side down. Shake the pan and use a spatula to press the fillets flat for a few seconds. Pound 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds in a pestle & mortar and scatter over the fish from a height with a pinch of salt & pepper. Finely grate over the zest of 1 lemon, then cut the lemon into quarters and set aside.
Potatoes Finely chop the cilantro on a large wooden cutting board, setting a few leaves aside for the garnish. Add the mango chutney, a good splash of soy sauce, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, the juice from ½ lime, and the reserved chopped chile. Chop and mix everything together on the board.
Greens Fill the large saucepan with boiling water and add a large pinch of salt. Add the broccoli and asparagus, making sure they are completely submerged. Put the lid on and turn the heat to high.
Branzino Check the fish – once the skin is golden and crispy, turn the heat down to low – but have confidence to let the skin become good and crispy before reducing the heat.
Potatoes Get the sweet potatoes out of the microwave and check they are cooked through, then use tongs to squeeze over the juice from the hot lime halves and discard them. Carefully tip the sweet potatoes on top of the mango chutney mixture and use a knife or masher to chop and mash everything together, including the skins. Season to taste, adding more fresh lime juice if needed.
Branzino Take the pan of fish off the heat and flip the fillets over so they gently finish cooking on the flesh side. Return the pancetta to the pan to warm through, then serve the fish and pancetta on top of the board of mashed potatoes. Pop the lemon sedges on the side for squeezing and sprinkle over the reserved cilantro. Take to the table.
Greens Drain the broccoli and asparagus in a colander, then tip into the serving bowl with the dressing, quickly toss, and take to the table.
Results: These were the best sweet potatoes I’ve had in my life! They were spicy, though, so if you don’t like spice maybe substitute a sweet red pepper – I can never find red and green chiles, so I substituted a scotch bonnet pepper, and my hands were still burning through the night. Also, I don’t like cooking in the microwave, especially with plastic wrap, so if you have enough time, be sure to boil or steam your potatoes instead. But I’m definitely going to make a version of these sweet potatoes for Christmas dinner. Delish.
But this post was about the fish. So what I did differently from Jamie… I wrapped my whole fish (bloody and slimy, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with salt, stuffed with sliced garlic) in foil and baked it on a baking sheet at 400 for 35 minutes. Doing this made it easy to pick apart for meat, which I added to the pancetta fat in the pan…
…sprinkling with crushed fennel seeds and lemon zest as Jamie suggests. And this got me about 4 bites of meat! I think if you buy tilapia fillets they probably come from monsters, not grocery store fish like mine. I learned from this experience that swimming fish are mostly there for decoration. Sorry fishy. Anyway, I fried my pre-baked meat to crisp it up a little and followed the rest of the recipe, frying the pancetta and washing and cutting veg before my friends came, re-warming the pancetta and cooking everything else post-piano.
Phil loved it. Jamie Oliver never disappoints. But I can’t even tell you if there was a difference in taste due to fishy freshness because I had to mix it with more meat. I won’t ask for a live fish again, but it was definitely “an experience” to cook one. Rating: 5 Yums for Jamie’s recipe and cookbook, 2 Gags for cooking a live grocery store fish.
In honour of the NHL strike, I’ll choose one of winealign.com’s top chardonnay suggestions (which the site says pairs well with pan fried whitefish), Wayne Gretzky’s 2008 unoaked chardonnay, selling for $13.95 in Ontario.
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