Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Friday Night Fish Stories

We are now in the season of Lent, which means meatless Fridays for all of us Catholics until Easter Sunday. This is supposed to be a big sacrifice, and for many, like my Mother, it is. But not for me. If I had my way, I’d eat fish every day of the week. I am truly my Father’s daughter.

During the Lenten season, everyone is supposed to give up something that he or she likes. It’s a small, symbolic sacrifice that reminds one of what the Christian martyrs sacrificed by giving up their lives for Christ.

Since I’m clearly not the stuff of which martyrs are made, I always give up something for Lent that I’m not too keen on anyway, like sweets. I suppose I should feel a twinge of guilt, but so far......nothing, nada, rien.


Anyway, a few Friday nights ago, my husband and I were at Il Gattopardo (“the Leopard”), a terrific Italian restaurant on 54th Street in Manhattan.

Among the specials on offer that night was a whole branzino, which, the waiter assured me, would be filleted at tableside.

“Lovely,” I said. “I’ll have the branzino, and I’ll fillet it myself.” He looked a bit startled and gave me that “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” look (a look I know very well), and my husband quickly added, “My wife is French. She knows what she’s doing.”

“Oh, very good, Madame” our waiter replied, looking ever so relieved.

Serving a whole fish to American diners is simply not done. Maybe it has something to do with the eyes staring up at them or the fear of swallowing a tiny bone and choking to death.

Or..…maybe it’s just that Americans don’t like to work for their food the way the French do.

For me, it’s a bonding experience. Whether I’m lovingly pulling off the leaves of an artichoke, one by one, and dipping them into the sauce, cracking a crab with my bare hands or carefully and methodically deboning my fish, I am one with my food.  

I have my own method of filleting fish, taught to me by my Father, who knew a thing or two about fish.

Le Vieux Port de La Rochelle

He was born and raised in La Rochelle, which sits right on the Atlantic Ocean. The sea was in his blood, and the bounty it provided was daily on my Grandmother’s dining table.

His Father was the head chef in a prestigious local restaurant, but he always said that it was his Mother who was the superior cook.

Whole fish in American restaurants are filleted either in the kitchen or at tableside and then presented to the diner. It’s often a lovely presentation. 

But, I prefer to do it myself, as I go, so to speak. Here’s how I do it.

Posted by Hank Shaw of HunterAngler Gardener Cook on September 3, 2010
Step 1:   With my knife, I cut crossways just behind the head to loosen the flesh while leaving the central bone that runs lengthwise intact.

Step 2:   With my knife, I cut lengthwise from head to tail, right down the center to loosen the flesh while still leaving the center bone intact.

Step 3:   With my knife, I carefully peal back the skin on one side of the fish from behind the head to the tail.

Step 4:   With my knife, I separate the flesh by pulling it away from the center bone, being careful not to disturb the tiny bones.

At this point, the waiter or Maitre d’ in an American restaurant will repeat the process on the other side and carefully lift off the head, center bone and tail, which should come out easily in one piece, and set it aside. 

He will then sauce the fish and present it to the diner. My Father taught me to leave one side covered while I eat the other side. This ensures that the uncovered flesh remains juicy and warm until I’m ready to enjoy it.

Step 5:   Once I have enjoyed both sides, I then remove the head, center bone and tail and enjoy the flesh underneath, which is still juicy and warm.

If you’ll pardon the introduction of sweet into a savory discussion, it really is du gateau….a piece of cake. 

With a little practice, you can master it in no time….trust me. You'll never eat a whole fish any other way again.  I taught my Irish-American husband to do this in one easy lesson, and he took to it like……..well…...a fish to water.

Of course, he gets the same “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” looks from startled waiters when he insists on filleting the fish himself; but he just says, “My wife is French and she knows what I’m doing.” ….point à la ligne….end of discussion. 


  1. Point à la ligne... Good for you, M-T. I have never deboned a fish, so it is fair to say I am French and I don't know what I'm doing :-) I am glad you are here "pour sauver l'honneur!" Great to read about your culinary adventures with Dan in Manhattan! Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

  2. L'honneur de la France gastronomique vaut bien la peine d'être sauvé, don't you think? Someone has to do it!

    Perhaps I can give you a personal fish deboning lesson when I see you. I will be out your way this summer. We will be doing our "Ring" thing in Seattle. I'll be in touch.

    Or........perhaps you will be celebrating your BIG B-day in Manhattan????

    bizzzzz, M-T

  3. I'm impressed. I would be afraid I would make a mess. I would have to practice in private before I dared to attempt deboning a fish in public. We had crab when we visited our French friends two summers ago and I had no idea how to tackle it. They helped us out, but by the time I was done with the claws that was enough so I gave the father the rest of mine to eat.

    By the way, do you live in Manhattan? We are coming to New York next week and I'm dying to know if you have any early spring flowers out yet. It hasn't been very warm yet, but it might have been warm long enough for crocuses to pop out. I would love to see some touches of spring as we are still covered by feet of snow.

    1. Dear Grace, practice makes perfect. I have faith in you.

      I live about 1.5 hrs from Manhattan, but spend a great deal of time there during the opera season.

      Unfortunately, I cannot promise you any early spring flowers. We are still very much in winter mode, but Central Park is beautiful all year round. Actually, I adore it on a snowy day.

      I hope you have a wonderful trip.

      I'd be happy to suggest some restaurants, etc., if you like. Send me an e-mail.

  4. This stirred memories of my childhood. Mother was superb in the kitchen and eating whole fish was a skill we learnt at our dining table. Unfortunately my children do not delight in this activity and prefer their fish filleted - if they have to eat it. Where have I gone wrong? Bisous

    1. Oh, ma chère, don't blame yourself. You obviously did everything right. Who knows? Some day your children may surprise you by not only enjoying but filleting their own fish.

      When it comes to children, the book is never completely written.

      I am delighted we could share childhood memories.

      Gros bisous to you, too. M-T

  5. an entire fish! I am so impressed with your skill. I would have made a terrible mess. xxpeggybraswelldesign.com

    1. It's really not that impressive a skill, once you learn how....like riding a bicycle. Anyone can do it with a little practice.

      My husband watched me do it a few times before he attempted it, himself, and he did it perfectly first time out.

      Give it a try, Peggy, and let me know how you do. Bon appétit !

      xx, M-T

  6. Salut ma très chère Copine,

    Back to the world of blogging for a few hours - what I haven't done for days. Tu m'as manqué!

    I truly enjoyed your post. The day we meet, no meat (!) but whole fish in our plate to celebrate! I am 10000% with you. A whole fish or nothing. It zests up "le plaisir de la table". I wonder how the waiter didn't collapse.... A whole fish + deboned by the customer: this guy has probably had the most amazing time in a waiter's life!!!
    Many hugs.
    Anne (pro whole fish elitist club member)

    PS. My favorite recipe... WHOLE fish on the grill + on the side, dressing made with : crème fraîche, olive oil, Dijon mustard and chives........ To die for. Tu me donnes faim et tu me fais penser au marché de la Baule en Bretagne que j'adore. Mal partie pour le régime!

    1. Salut ma petite, tu m'as manqué aussi. C'est absolument fous....nous sommes toujours sur la même longueur d'onde.

      The waiter was from Italy so he did not collapse. In fact, he smiled.

      Tu ne vas pas me croire, but I was the center of attention when the fish was presented. Everyone was watching me debone my fish. It was hilarious.

      Your recipe makes my mouth water. I hope that we will soon have the pleasure of dining together.

      I have never been to Bretagne, but always wanted to see and enjoy its wild beauty.

      Régime? Régime? Bof, je n'y comprends rien.

      Big bisous, M-T

  7. An impressive share! I have just forwarded this
    onto a colleague who was doing a little research on this.

    And he actually bought me dinner due to
    the fact that I stumbled upon it for him... lol.
    So allow me to reword this.... Thank YOU for the
    meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending some time to talk about this matter here on your web site.

    1. You are most welcome, as is your comment. Hope the meal was excellent. Thanks for sharing my Blog w/your friend.

      Cheers, M-T

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