Fish for the Pot
If you are going to keep a few fish for a meal, there is more to it than bashing them on the head and slinging them in a bag. Although to be honest, that is what most of us did until the Japanese, in their search for the ultimate sashimi, discovered that if a fish died calmly the meat was much better. If you want to have great fish fillets, here is what to do.
As soon as the fish is landed, it must be killed by pushing a spike into its central brain just behind the eye. This is quick and humane. You can either use an Iki Jime spike if you know a Japanese chap who has one, or make your own by filing an old, slender screwdriver into a spike. Push the spike into the right hand side of the head and wiggle it around to destroy the brain. The fish will go limp (unsurprisingly). The heart will carry on pumping for a while, so to create the whitest fillets, the fish needs to be bled. You can do this by cutting the gill rakers with a knife or scissors, or cutting through the narrow bit of belly right under the gills where there is an artery. Let the fish bleed for a while.
Next, gut the fish and take out the gills. Wash in some sea water, then ideally, pack it in ice in a cooler, stuffing some ice into the belly cavity. If you do this, the fish will remain edible for up to ten days. For every hour left out of ice, the fish will last a day less. If you don’t have a box of ice, at least pack it with a few frozen 2 litre drinks bottles around it. Go home and enjoy the best fish you have ever tasted.
To keep bait or your catch fresh on hot days, most anglers use a large cool-box. To keep the temperature low, you can use the blue ice-packs you can buy, but they do not last very long and their effectiveness in a large cool-box is questionable. Instead, fill some 2-litre plastic drinks bottles nearly full with tap water, and freeze them. Two bottles in a large cooler will stay frozen most of a hot day, and the fish on the bottles will be nicely chilled when you get them home. At the end of the day, wash the bottles down and put them back in the freezer for the next trip. They will last and last, and are so much better than those blue ice-packs.
P.S. If drinks bottles rolling back and forth inside your cool-box irritate you, use square section plastic milk bottles.
There is no better way of describing than showing, and many videos are excellent – almost every species you are likely to catch is demonstrated by an expert. Search online or look on Youtube. I won’t post links here because they keep changing!
If you are going to prepare and cook fish, you absolutely must have one key item, a proper cooks knife that is razor sharp. Nothing else will do. Ideally, you need a set, including a slim and flexible filleting knife for sliding under skin and over bones, plus a heavy, stiff knife for cutting through bones for steaks. A knife will soon be useless without a sharpener, so get a good one of those too. You can get a good quality knife set on-line. I like the Pro-Cook knife sharpener, which is the best I have used.
The small bones that are left down the middle of a fillet after filleting are called pin bones. You can feel them by running your finger from head to tail on the flesh side of a fillet. You can either remove them by cutting out a strip of flesh containing them, or more fiddly but less wasteful you can pluck them out one by one. You can use pliers but a better tool is a cook’s pin-boner. You can buy them from cook shops or Amazon.
Preparing and Cooking Rays
There is a lot of mystery and nonsense around cooking cartilaginous (as opposed to bony) fish species. This is usually related to worries and fears about the smell of ammonia that comes from the flesh of rays and dogfish. There are ways of dealing with this involving soaking in various liquids, but the easiest, and most reliable, is to prepare your fish portions then freeze them for a couple of weeks or more. Once thawed, the smell will have gone and you will have some firm, white fish ready for your recipe.
So how do you prepare a ray wing? First catch your ray, of course. You will need a reasonably sized ray to get a couple of portions from, so put any back that are less than the size of a “Bag for Life” or Lidl carrier – that’s as good a measure as any. Kill it humanely with a hefty whack between the eyes, then with a very sharp knife and a firm hold, cut each wing from the body along the edge of the soft central guts area. You will find it easy to run the knife along the hard inner edge of the wing, except in the middle of the back where there is a sort of bony bridge. Cut through this and you will have 2 separate wings. To save space, trim the thin edge of the wings back to a point where there is flesh covering the bones, otherwise you will overcrowd your cooking pan for no good reason. Rays are very slimy so all this will be a bit messy – and take care with the knife if it’s all sliding about!
Freeze the wings and when you are ready for a meal, thaw them thoroughly. The next problem to overcome is the covering of rough skin. The professional fishmongers have a lot of skill and very sharp knives, and they cut the skin away before putting the wings on the slab. You can do this too, if you have a razor-sharp knife, by peeling the skin back and slicing between the flesh and the underside of the skin.
Here’s a good video of a professional at work:
There is a quicker way though. Take your largest frying pan and fill with boiling water. Heat the pan to keep the water simmering and put the wings in the water. After a couple of minutes, take them out (you may have to do them one at a time) and scrape the skin off both sides of the wing with a large knife. The skin with come off easily. You can now use your skinned ray wings in your recipe of choice.