Learning to love the whole fish
I realize how pathetic this is, but I’ve caught exactly one fish in my life. I was 7 or 8 and attending the Boat Show in the Superdome with my father. Feeling sporty, I competed to catch one of the hundreds of speckled trout crowding a stocked kiddy pool. My very own ill-fated fish bit just as the buzzer rang to end the competition. I went home with my still-live specimen in a bag of water with the intention of keeping it as a pet.
When asked how I wanted my prize cooked, I was shocked and attempted to magpie my treasure away in the bathroom. Understandably disgusted, my father wrestled the fish away to the kitchen where he gutted it, fried it whole and delivered it – whole – to the table.
The resulting trauma was long and profound.
Why lie? I am a weenie and I’ve spent my life with blinders on, doing all of my hunting and gathering at Rouses and Langenstein’s.
Just days after chef Michael Gulotta opened MoPho in Mid-City my daughter, Cecilia, a nd I scored seats at the window counter.
“Oh cool, Mom. Let’s get the whole fish to share.”
Gulp. To this 17-year-old I’m un-cool and embarrassing already. An inability to stare a dead fish in the eye and eat it anyway would rob me of whatever pittance of street cred I might just have with her.
Our whole rice-battered fried redfish arrived upright with his tail swept gracefully to the left as though Gulotta had plucked him mid-swim from a kitchen tank (given the screamingly fresh texture and bright flavor of the fish, this could have been the case). Adorned with tiny discs of blood orange, the swishy-tailed Flipper was taking his post-mortem swim in a bracing pool of fresh citrus juice through a tangle of what appeared to be baby bokchoy. Ignoring his unwavering stare, with our chopsticks we reduced him to a spine and a head.
Newly liberated from my discomfiture with “The Stare,” in recent weeks I’ve undertaken a whole fish fishing expedition. My quest has taken me to Kim Son for a steamed fish with black bean sauce and a fried variety in a bright tomato broth. I don’t know what kind of fish they were, a language barrier kept me from finding out, but both were delicious.
Pêche, chefs Donald Link, Stephen Stryjewski and Ryan Prewitt’s temple to aquatic foods, can probably take the credit for re-popularizing the whole fish at the table trend that seems to be sweeping the area. On any given day there’s at least one variety of whole fish one the menu. The preparations and combinations include: Whole roasted flounder with lemon-caper beurre blanc; grilled American red snapper with grapefruit and basil; grilled mangrove snapper with Louisiana shallots and criolla sella vinaigrette; grilled lane snapper with corn and jalapeños; and roasted redfish with salsa verde.
I recently went to Toups Meatery to join a friend for plates full of the porky goodnes s we can always find there, and chef Isaac Toups surprised us with a whole pan-r oasted red snapper on the list of specials.
Our snapper showed up adorned with butter-braised onions in a pool of rich, roux-free, tomato-free courtbouillion made with Mildred Toups’ (Isaac’s grandmother’s) recipe that calls for reducing mountains of fish bones and scraps into a fish fume that’s further reduced into “concentrated fish love.”
The charming chef joined us at the table. When the fish was reduced to a pile of bones he snapped off its tail. “Like potato chips,” he said, taking a bite from the crispy fan and passing it to me. “Now the eyes …”
Good Eggs: 777-3380, GoodEggs.com/nola
Kim Son: 349 Whitney Ave., Gretna, 366-2489, KimSonNola.com
MoPho: 514 City Park Ave., 482-6845, MoPhoMidCity.com
Pêche Seafood Grill: 800 Magazine St., 522-1744, PecheRestaurant.com
Toups’ Meatery: 845 N. Carrollton Ave., 252-4999, ToupsMeatery.com
Good Eggs recently set up shop in Bywater. Started in San Francisco, the on-line co-op marketplace for products from select culinary artisans and growers works with local producers to create marketplaces to support independent local farms and food businesses. The many local foods on the site include pastry and pie from the NOLA Pie Guy, pizza dough and King Cake from Crescent Pie & Sausage and Chocolate Granola from Gracious Bakery. Good Eggs delivers for a fee and free pickup spots are scattered throughout the area.