09 September 2020
Buying, filleting and preparing fresh fish
Handy tips & tricks for preparing a whole fish
Fish is delicious and healthy. You can easily prepare it on your Big Green Egg and there are tons of variations. But, of course, it all starts with freshly caught fish. How do you tell if fish is fresh, and what are the tips & tricks for the easiest way to clean and fillet the fish yourself?
The best quality
The success of a dish depends on quality ingredients. You might already have a passionate fishmonger you can always count on. If you don’t, then trust your instincts. Once you know the properties of fresh fish, you will always come home with the best quality. Let’s go back to basics and buy whole fish. The advantage of whole fish is that you can tell whether it’s fresh, it is less expensive than buying fillets and you can use the head and bones to make a great fish stock.
How to recognise fresh fish
Some general properties you can look out for when buying whole fish are plain for all to see. The eyes should be clear and round, and the fins should still be flexible, particularly the tail fin. If the fins feel dry, the fish is past its prime. Furthermore, nice red gills and the firmness and springiness of the fillet are important: when you press on the body of the fish, it ‘spring’ back. If it doesn’t, the fish is either old or it has been frozen. When fish is frozen, the meat loses its tension, and the eyes develop a white spot. Sometimes, the white spot can cause confusion because it can also result from fresh fish being put on ice. Therefore, it is important to assess a combination of properties. Of course, the fish should smell fresh too. If it has a pungent fishy smell, don’t buy it.
A close look at different kinds of fish
The general knowledge above will get you a long way. But one kind of fish is very different from the next, and once you’ve bought the fish, you will still have to clean it and perhaps fillet it before you can prepare it on your Big Green Egg. Therefore, let’s take a closer look at 3 different fish: sea bass (a round fish), plaice (flatfish) and monkfish (cartilaginous fish).
Descaling a round fish
Like with most round fish, you can gauge the freshness of a whole sea bass based on all the previously mentioned properties. If you are going to cook the whole sea bass, cut the fins off the fish before descaling it. If you want to prevent the scales from getting everywhere, put the fish in a bowl of cold water while you descale it. To do so, use a scaling knife. If you don’t have one: for fish species with larger scales, like sea bass, you can use the curved side of a chef’s knife. Another handy tip: the Japanese use the flat half of a scallop shell to descale fish. For fish species with smaller scales, like salmon, you can rub the scales off with a clean, stainless steel scrubbing pad. Fish always has to be descaled, even if you remove the skin later.
Cleaning and filleting the fish
After descaling the fish, cut open the abdominal cavity to remove the guts and entrails, from the end of the abdomen to the head. The guts and entrails are connected to the head, which is where you should sever them. Make sure you don’t damage the liver or bile, as that will give the fish a bitter taste. After rinsing the inside and outside of the fish with cold water and patting it dry with a paper towel, you can prepare the fish as is, or fillet it.
Fillet round fish like sea bass on the dorsal side, from the head to the tail. First make an incision diagonally behind the head of the fish, and then from the head down, use the tip of the knife to go along the central bone, keeping the knife flat. Cut down to the tail and cut the fillet loose, again from the head to tail. Use the same method to fillet the second piece on the other side. The bones in the thicker part of the fillets can be removed with fish bone pliers or fish bone tweezers.
To remove the skin, lay the fillets on your cutting board with the skin down. Make an incision at the tail side between the fish fillet and the skin. Hold the skin and make a short cut between the skin and the fillet with your knife. Keep the skin taught so the knife does the work for you. Now, you can slow-cook the delicious sea bass fillets in your kamado.
Flatfish, with or without skin?
The eyes of a flatfish, like the plaice, are small and less easy to see as they are in round fish. In addition to the other properties, you can tell how fresh a plaice is from the characteristic orange spots on its dark skin. They should be bright orange. If you want to make plaice fillets without the skin, it is best to have the dark skin removed by the fishmonger. Because if the fish isn’t cooked yet, that is quite a difficult task. It is easy to remove once it has been cooked. The white skin on the bottom of the fish can be left on, it’s delicious!
Two ways to fillet flatfish
Like most flatfish, plaice does not have to be descaled and can be filleted in different ways. A flatfish has 4 fillets, the thinner belly fillets and the thicker back fillets. If you are filleting the plaice English style, do not separate the back and belly fillet. Instead, cut the fish diagonally behind the head for the back fillet. Cut the fillet loose by letting your knife go along the bone flat, in one smooth motion. Cut the back fillet off the bone with the tip of your knife, but do not cut it all the way through. Lift the back fillet and cut the belly fillet loose. The back and belly fillet are still attached. Use the same method to fillet the pieces on the other side of the bone.
If you want 4 separate fillets, also cut the fish diagonally behind the head, for both the back fillet and the belly fillet. Then cut the plaice over the central bone, from head to tail. Now, cut diagonally along the central bone with the tip of your knife and cut the fillet off over the bones with one smooth motion. Lift and cut off the whole fillet. You can cut all 4 fillets off this way.
Plaice fillet on the bone
For a spectacular presentation of your dish, you can also leave both (thicker) back fillets on the bone. To do so, only cut the (thinner) belly fillets off (you can cut these into chunks and fry them in batter). Then, cut off the head and use sturdy scissors to partly cut the ventral bones with a neat, rounded cut; that will give you a mohawk of ventral bones. After cutting off the tail and fins from the abdomen, you could bread and fry the mohawk back fillets.
Monkfish has an impressive appearance and an equally impressive flavour. The monkfish is a round fish, but is also cartilaginous. One of the advantages of this species is that it has only one round backbone made of cartilage and no ventral bones. The meat has a nice, firm texture because the monkfish is quite lazy. The appendage from the fish’s head lights up and acts as a lure for other fish. Smaller fish are drawn to the light and all the monkfish has to do is open its mouth.
If you want to gauge how fresh monkfish is, when buying it pay attention to the previously listed properties and also look in the fish’s mouth. The less fresh a monkfish is, the wider its mouth will have opened.
Fillets or chunks?
You can fillet a whole monkfish or cut it into chunks. Don’t forget to cut the cheeks out of the head, as those are the most exclusive part of the monkfish and considered a delicacy. It is very easy to remove the membrane covering the cheeks. Then cut the head off the tail by cutting from the fin towards the head, pushing the backbone through and then cutting back diagonally towards the other fin. Place the tail with the underside facing up and cut the skin with the underlying membrane loose all around; it is easily done by following it with your knife. Check the tail meat for any residual membrane. You can very easily fillet the tail meat by cutting over the backbone on both sides. If you want to cut the fish into chunks, simply cut them into your desired thickness, through the cartilage backbone.
Fish on the Big Green Egg
Whether you’ve bought sea bass, plaice or monkfish, they are all equally easy to cook on the Big Green Egg. These recipes will inspire you.
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