Looking a gift fish in the eye

It’s been a long time since I looked my dinner in the eye.

Last Friday, I studied the two whitefish in my sink, gazing back at me with rather vacant eyes, and wondered if I’d remember what to do with them. As a kid, I cleaned many a fish that I caught myself. I even did a few now and then as an adult. However, it’s been a long, long time.

These fish were a gift. I was on the phone to my mother when the knock came at the door, and there stood a neighbor clutching a pail with the evidence–part of it, anyway–of his latest foray onto the frozen bay.

“You want a couple whitefish?” he asked. Have you seen the WhitefishWholeprice of fish at the market these days? Of course I want a couple whitefish, and envisioned the tasty filets. Then he added, “They’re not cleaned.”

I gave him my best nothing-to-it smile, the phone still clutched in my hand, and he deposited them in the pile of snow on our deck. I had visions of eagles or seagulls swooping down as soon as my back was turned, so I cut short the phone call from Mom.

“My neighbor just gave me some fish,” I explained, and waited a beat or two. “I have to clean them myself.” She laughed. I knew she would.

So there they lay, side by side in my sink, full of all the innards that God gave them and covered in scales. I’ve gutted fish, I’ve scaled fish, but I’ve never fileted them, and I didn’t want to chance wrecking these. I should have checked one of the myriad of how-to videos online these days, but I didn’t think of it until I’d finished the job my own way.

Since I couldn’t filet them, I’d have to scale them. I seemed to remember scales flying “hell, west and crooked,” as the saying goes, so I approached the job with small but firm movements to keep them contained. Lucky for me, they came off easily and behaved themselves once they were loose.

Then I washed the fish carefully, and hunted in the drawers for the filet knife I acquired from the people we bought our house from. It was obviously well-used, but never by me. I tested the edge and quickly reached for the knife sharpener.

I slit the belly of the fish from stem to stern, pulled out the interesting goodies from the inside, cut off the head and the fins on the bottom, washed the fish again–and by golly, it looked pretty good. I’d rather have had a nice, slim filet for pan frying, but I knew I could handle a whole-bodied fish one way or another.

All the while I did this, I thought of my friend and fellow blogger, the Trout Whisperer. His name should give you a clue: he handles fish a lot. He catches them, he cleans them, I bet he even filets them. I can hear him now.

“Woman, you should just move over and let an expert do it.”

Yeah, well, there weren’t any experts around.

It was only after I had the two critters wrapped and in the freezer that I took a look at a how-to video. It really doesn’t seem too daunting, and now I’m hoping for another free fish so I can try it.  The video did inspire me, though, because even as I was cleaning these fish, I had a store-bought whitefish filet, with the skin still on one side, thawing in the refrigerator for dinner that night.

You guessed it. I figured I could get a head start on learning this fileting technique by starting with one that already had most of the work done. So I grabbed the filet knife again and stripped the skin off that nice white store-bought flesh. I suspect it won’t be quite that easy if I start with a whole fish, but now I’m a little more confident about doing it.

WhitefishCookedThat night, I dipped the filet into some beaten egg, dredged it in flour, and added garlic salt, pepper and dill weed. Some people would insist on frying it in butter, but I decided that frying it at all was treat enough. I substituted a little grape seed oil, which is even healthier than olive oil and tastes good, too. The result was golden-brown yummyness. I’ll figure out what to do with those whole fish later.

Meanwhile, another viewing or two of that how-to video, and I’ll be ready to produce my own whitefish filet. Hey, neighbor. C’mon on back, y’hear?


About Monica Sawyn

I'm a retired newspaper reporter/columnist, and although I still freelance, I miss the weekly column I used to write. I still "see columns" in everyday life and need a place to put them after they're written--thus, this blog. I'm Catholic, have been a Benedictine oblate since 1977, and live with my husband and our beagle in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. When I'm not writing, I'm probably reading, sewing, taking photos or walking the dog.
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2 Responses to Looking a gift fish in the eye

  1. blb1 says:

    You are way ahead of me. Never fished, never cleaned fish. That looks good but I’m still left with store fish. 🙂

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