We all have our culinary fears – areas of cuisine we tend to avoid. Perhaps it’s because we’ve had spectacular failures trying our hands at them, or were never introduced to the proper methods, or – in this case – because the mere idea scares the living daylights out of you.
I know N shares this particular fear: that of preparing and eating whole fish. I’ve heard her stories of bulging fish eyes covered with napkins at expensive restaurants. In my case, it’s been unplesantly close encounters with fins, skin and bones that put me off the delicious adjacent flesh in a pretty disappointing way.
Now, I am not a squeamish person, and I believe very strongly in understanding as an omnivore the realities involved in preparing meat or flesh for consumption. But I think my caveat lies in the fact that I feel most reminders of these things should remain in the preparatory world – I am happy to fillet a fish, pluck a chicken, pull out eyes, or de-vein prawns while I’m preparing food, but I prefer to not have to deal with any or all of these things when I’m actually trying to eat.
“Keep it in the kitchen! Gawd!” I may be heard to proclaim, like a 12-year-old embarrassed by public displays of affection.
But on one sunny Saturday afternoon in London, a trip to the fishmonger to exchange witty Cockney banter (via him, not me) was too difficult to resist. I was also in a fear-defying mood, wanting to walk on the wild side. If I had been up for challenging fears I have about the outside world (as opposed to in the culinary world), I would have gone bungee jumping or something in order to challenge my petrifying fear of heights. However, I thought buying a whole sea bream would cater nicely to my daredevil instincts of the day, leaving my sky-bound adventures for another time.
But well, I faltered in my determination when faced with the mugs of red snapper, skate, herring, squid and shellfish in the fishmonger’s trays of icy fishy goodness. Everyone there seemed too confident in their purchases – and then I noticed the fishes hadn’t been cleaned at all. In fact, their eyes appeared to be mocking me, and I suddenly felt their prices weren’t quite such a bargain. After awkwardly browsing around for a few moments, I retreated back to my flat with my tail between my legs to do more Internet research.
See, it wasn’t just the fact that the fish was whole that worried me – it was the ‘culinary risk to price’ factor that was making me once again shy away from challenging my boundaries. I don’t have a lot of experience cooking fish, and what’s more, I can be a slightly picky eater when fish is placed in front of me. I often proclaim (quite loudly, to anyone who will listen) that good fish shouldn’t taste like fish at all. And I don’t like cooked salmon (raw salmon is no problem, strangely enough). Since one sea bream was going to cost £4.35, I was wavering.
However, armed with information from the Internet, I returned a while later with renewed conviction. I now knew I could ask the fishmonger to clean the fish for me, and that sea bream would be relatively comparable in taste and flavour to sea bass, a fish I’ve oft-enjoyed. I had settled on baking the fish whole with a melange of fresh herbs, sun-dried tomatoes, onion, garlic and olive oil and I was going to like it, dammit.
And well, like it I did – for the first 85%. I enjoyed how easy it was to pick the bones from the whole fish, and how soft, fresh and lovely everything tasted. The sharp and strong sun-dried tomatoes didn’t overpower the fish as I had feared, and the fresh parsley proved a lovely contrasting element.
But unfortunately, about 80% of the way through, the growing carcass and existing head grew to be a bit too much for me and the heebie-jeebies set in. Shortly thereafter, I gave up. However, I think I can mostly manage my fear in the future – and when I can’t I will just ask the fishmonger to fillet the fish for me.
Sun-dried Tomato and Fresh Herb Sea Bream
1 small-to-medium-sized sea bream, cleaned and trimmed
½ red onion, sliced in rings
3 cloves garlic, one sliced thinly, the other two minced
1 bunch of chopped fresh parsley
1 bunch of chopped fresh basil
6 sun-dried tomatoes, roughly chopped
Generous amounts of olive oil (if using oil-preserved tomatoes, omit)
Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Clean the sea bream in cold water both inside and out and season the inner cavity and outer body with salt. Make 3 or 4 vertical cuts along the body on each side of the fish and place slivers of the thinly sliced garlic in each cut. Place the fish in the centre of a baking tray covered in tin foil.
In a separate bowl combine the fresh herbs, olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes and garlic. Mix well. Stuff the inside of the fish with 3/4 of the the mixture and place the remainder overtop. Cover the fish with tin foil, ensuring the tray is sealed.
Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the flesh flakes easily off the bone.