By Mark Romanack
The “Devil is in the Details”, so they say. In the case of a good fish dinner, the details of how fish are cleaned and prepared for the table can make the difference in seafood that tastes heavenly or ends up being a meal fit for the Devil!
For more than 40 years I’ve been cleaning and cooking my own fish. Along the way I’ve picked up a tip or two that makes my fish dinners something to brag about. I’d like to claim I have some secret recipe for making fish take heavenly, but the truth is what makes for a good fish dinner is how a fish is treated prior to cooking.
The author’s friend Kirk Herman passed away a few years ago. When Kirk was doing the cooking no one turned down an invitation to his fish fries. While every cook has his or her secrets, the thing that makes fish on the table so rewarding is the people who helped us catch the fish in the first place.
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FRESH IS THE BEST
Fish can be frozen and enjoyed months later, but there is no substitute for the flavor and texture of fish fresh caught and cooked. Freezing fish is a solution we accept because often a day of fishing produces more fish flesh than can be eaten in a meal or two.
My rule of thumb is to only keep as much fish as I feel I can consume fresh caught and cooked. By eliminating a freezer full of fish, I’ve solved one of the biggest problems associated with a fish dinner tasting… well fishy!
Some fish freeze better than others, but all fish loose some of their flavor and texture when exposed to the freezer. If you have to freeze fish, freeze the fillets after vacuum sealing them. If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, covering the fillets in water and freezing them is the next best option.
Once frozen, mark the packages with the species included and more importantly the date frozen. If frozen fish are thawed and eaten within two or three months only a small percentage of the natural flavor and texture is lost. The longer the fillet is frozen, the poorer quality fish dinner that’s going to result.
CONDITION IS EVERYTHING
Keeping fish in prime condition and ideal for table fare can only be accomplished two ways. Either the fish is kept alive until it can be filleted and them refrigerated or the fish must be packed on ice immediately upon catching the fish so the flesh starts to chill down quickly.
Dragging a fish around on a stringer or in a livewell full of slimy water is not going to yield good tasting fish.
Not all boats have livewells suitable for keeping a limit of fish alive and healthy. In the summer time when water temperatures are spiking even the best livewells are not going to keep a two or three man limit of walleyes frisky.
If your boat has a marginal livewell or when fishing in the heat of summer, it would be best to simply pack the fresh caught fish on a bed of crushed ice. If you plan ahead and take a cooler full of ice on board, the fish caught will be in perfect condition when it’s time to break out the fillet knife.
Some anglers fill their livewell with ice and plug it so no water from the outside can get in. As fish are caught they simply toss them in the livewell to chill out on a bed of ice. It takes two or three bags of ice to accomplish this objective as ice melts pretty quickly in a livewell.
A growing number of anglers are bleeding their fish before cleaning them. This process starts by cutting the triangle shaped piece of tissue on the throat of the fish that ties into the gills. Once cut and tossed in a livewell or on a bed of ice, the fish bleeds out quickly.
The advantage is that blood drains from the flesh and when the fish is eventually filleted, the meat is snow white. This process makes for less mess on the cleaning table and yields fillets that are in great shape.
This practice can be accomplished on literally any species of fish, but fish like lake trout and salmon that have a lot of blood in them are prime candidates for “bleeding” before cleaning.
GETTING ALL THE BONES OUT
I’ll admit that some fish are easier to fillet than others, but no one wants to take a big bite of a fish dinner only to discover a mouthful of bones. The rib bones of fish are the easy ones to spot and eliminate. What many sea food lovers don’t understand is that most game fish have a second row of bones that run approximately down the middle of the fillet.
For some species like northern pike and musky, these bones are large and fairly easy to locate. Often called “Y” bones because they are forked at the end, the “Y” bones so prominent on pike and musky are also found in other species, but they are much less noticeable.
Walleye, lake trout, king and coho salmon, brown trout and steelhead also have a row of bones that runs along the lateral line. Smack in the middle of the thickest part of the fillet, most fishermen are reluctant to start cutting up the middle of a beautiful fillet and thus the problem of a bony fish fillet is manifest.
After slabbing off a fillet and removing the rib bones, the next step is to locate the “Y” bones that run the length of the fillet near the lateral line. If you run your bare fingers along the meat side of the fillet, these small bones can usually be felt. Cutting a small wedge out of the center of the fillet, may seem like wasting good meat, but it’s the only way to get all the bones out of the fillet.
The larger the fish, the more prominent these “Y” bones become. For example, a 15 inch walleye can be slabbed off and no one would even notice the tiny “Y” bones once the fillet is cooked. Try that same experiment with a 24 inch walleye and the “Y” bones are big enough to become an issue.
Thankfully it is easy to remove the “Y” bones from walleye without losing precious meat. Using a sharp fillet knife cut a small one-inch long slit on either side of the lateral line near the tail of the walleye fillet. Grab the two slits and pull gently. The fillet will tear leaving a strip of meat at the top and bottom of the fillet that are virtually bone free. The thin strip down the middle of the fillet contains the “Y” bones and also most of the lateral line organ that makes fish taste fishy.
This process of removing the “Y” bones from walleye fillets is called “stripping the fillet” and it works well for other species like smallmouth bass and other similar sized fish.
For larger fish like salmon it’s best to remove the “Y” bones by cutting a small wedge of meat out of the middle of the fillet. The bones in salmon and trout run from just behind the head to a point a little in front of the tail portion of the fish.
The lateral line on walleye is largely removed when the fillet is stripped as described above. Other species like salmon and trout have a much more pronounced lateral line. This brown meat in the middle of the fillet has a strong flavor and must be removed. The only practical way to accomplish this is with a fillet knife sharp enough to thinly slice away the brown meat.
ICING EVERYTHING DOWN
The moment a fish is filleted and the “Y” bones and lateral line are removed, it’s time to wash the fillet and then ice it down. Soaking the fillet in a mixture of ice water and table salt will quickly remove any blood from the meat and start to firm up the fillet. Usually just a few minutes of soaking will do the trick.
The next step is to wash the fillet one more time and then to pack the fillets in plastic bags and ice them down. The best tasting fish are fillets that are chilled to the point they are almost starting to freeze. Commercial fishermen accomplish this by packing their catch on a mixture of crushed ice and salt. The salt super chills the ice to the point, fish can be kept for much longer without losing any of their flavor and texture.
LET’S GET COOKING
How a fish is cooked and seasoned is a matter of personal taste. When fish are fresh caught, cleaned properly and chilled accordingly they can be fried, baked, broiled or boiled. The point is simple… a properly cleaned fish is going to taste better regardless of how it is prepared.