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.

Wine Pairing

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.


  1. Leave a Reply

    Mike @ Midwestern Bite
    December 14, 2012

    Every time I walk past a lobster tank, I say to myself, “Self – one of these days you’ll surprise the wife with a fancy dinner.”

    Knowing me I’d probably not get around to eating it due to having too much fun hiding it in the tub or bed or something.

    • Leave a Reply

      Ann Allchin
      December 14, 2012

      Nab two of them for sure! They’re my favourite food on earth and they’re very easy to prepare (trickier to access the meat once it’s cooked, but maybe I’ll just have to force myself to do a “how to” post). Thanks for popping in!

  2. Leave a Reply

    Heather Sccott
    December 14, 2012

    Such effort Ann to have so little fish meat,poor fish would have been happier in the tank! I would never be that adventurous anyway and can’t bear those eyes looking at me haha. The sweet potatoes are worth a try,though had to check out cilantro good to know coriander can be got here. Hope Charly is enjoying piano lessons Jonathan will be able to help her along when you are over next summer!

    • Leave a Reply

      Ann Allchin
      December 14, 2012

      Yes, cilantro and coriander are the same plant at different phases of growth I think! Definitely do the potatoes. Just sent your Christmas card today (slightly late) and there’s some bonus Charly art inside that I think you’ll like. Looking forward to visiting this summer! Merry Christmas!

  3. Leave a Reply

    Joanna @ Midwestern Bite
    December 16, 2012

    Lessons learned from this post: make sweet potato recipe, do not buy live fish. I’d say those are both important lessons to be learned here. I love sweet taters but always either microwave them or bake them as fries. Getting kinda boring. Not to make this fish post more about the sweet potatoes or anything. Also, thanks for urging the husband to buy and cook me lobster. If it actually happens, I’ll owe you one.

    • Leave a Reply

      Ann Allchin
      December 16, 2012

      The sweet potatoes were really great! And watch out offering me a lobster – I’ll collect on that for sure! Good chatting with you guys. I’m going to add you to my bloglovin feed so that I’ll be more on top of your posts

      • Leave a Reply

        Joanna @ Midwestern Bite
        December 16, 2012

        That’s sweet, thanks!! It’s funny, when I first started my blog I thought in the back of my head I might do monthly posts about trying new foods out. Then I found your blog and you already did it darn well so now I just read yours 😉

        • Leave a Reply

          Ann Allchin
          December 17, 2012

          Aw, thanks! Love yours too!

  4. Leave a Reply

    February 4, 2013

    Awesome stuff, thanks for the recipe. I am definitely going to be committing a cold blooded murder this evenong when I get off work. Tilapia is such an awesome and flavorful fish esp. when Pan seared. Thanks for also pairing it with an authentic Ontario wine

    • Leave a Reply

      Ann Allchin
      February 4, 2013

      Grocery store fish tanks might be far more popular if they let the customers try to grab their own fish with their bare hands. If only I were a grocery store manager… And love Ontario wines. The whites especially are world class.

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