Hook, Line & Dinner Transcript

Tennessee Aquarium - 8:00 am

     [AB is underwater in the fish tank of the Tennessee Aquarium] Over 70% of our cozy little planet is covered with water. And thankfully, there's a lot of tasty stuff out here to eat. So much so, in fact, that the average American cook has something like a hundred different market varieties of fish to choose from. And that's not even including things with tentacles and legs and shells and the like.
    Of course, choices bring questions:  Can I grill that one? Does that silver one come in steaks?  We're here to plumb the depths of these mysteries and a few others. We're going to maneuver the tricky currents of your local fish counter. We'll take a look at three very versatile ways of cooking fish. And, hey, if we have time we'll find out who this belongs to. [Picks up necklace from the sandy floor reminiscent of the one dropped by Rose DeWitt Bukater in the movie, Titanic]  And all before my tank runs dry. So don't drift away. This is Good Eats.

Tennessee Aquarium

    Whether your palate is set on fresh-water or salt-water fish, round fish like these or flat fish like halibut that just lay around like doormats all day, either way ...

AB: [to a passing fish] Wait your turn.

 ... the most important thing you can do, aside from proper cooking, is to find yourself a good, reliable source for fresh fish.

Harry's Farmers Market - 4:00 pm

GUEST: Jim Rag, Fish Monger

    Here then, the anatomy of a proper fish shop. Number 1: No fishy smell. No Fishy Smell
    Number 2: It's clean. It's Clean
    Number 3: It stays busy. See, when it comes to perishable goods like fish, popularity is a virtue. It's Busy
    Four: Fish and shellfish are separated with whole fish packed in plenty of clean ice with good drainage. And fillets and steaks are in trays set on ice. Fish & Shellfish Separate
    Five: the labels contain useful information such as water of origin and whether the product is fresh or frozen, otherwise known as 'fancy'. Informative Labels
    Six: The shop cuts its own fish. They may not be outfitted to handle big game like swordfish or marlin; but the more fish that comes in the door whole, the better. Cutting on Premises

    Once you settle on a shop, get to know the folks behind the counter. Talk to them. Ask them questions, like ...

AB: Hey, what would you take home today?
JIM RAG: I'd take the striped bass.
AB: Well, okay then.

    Learn what quality fish looks like and then learn to be flexible. By arming yourself with a few basic preparations, you're going to able to take advantage of the best offerings of the day, regardless of what you had in mind when you left home. And if home is more than a couple of miles away, bring a cooler.

Raw fish refrigerated on ice lasts twice as
long as fish refrigerated without ice.

    When it comes to buying whole fish, there is no holy grail. There's no secret decoder ring. There's no one factor to look for. It's kind of like buying a car. You've got to kind of consider the whole package. Now, my fish monger here, this is Jim Rag.

AB: He's been cutting fish for how many years, Jim?
JR: About 22 years.
AB: 22 years.

    He's cut so many fish that he can't even go to the beach for fear of retribution.

AB: If there was just one thing that you could look for, one factor, what would it be?
JR: It would be the smell.
AB: Smell? What should it smell like?
JR: Nothing.
AB: Nothing.
JR: Nothing.
AB: Let me have a sniff of that. I smell a little ocean there, you know ...
JR: That's fine.
AB: ... kind of like a five-mile away beach, kind of thing. Do people very often ask to smell fish?
JR: Not as often as they should.
AB: Really? That's the one thing they ought to go for?
JR: Yes.

    Now whole is my favorite way to buy fish.

JR: Here you go.

    For one thing since it's been processed less it's more economical per pound. And again, always with my trusty cooler.

The Kitchen

    I can't say for sure why members of the bass family, like our striped friend here, are so well suited to cooking whole. Maybe it's because their medium-fat flesh is already perfectly balanced and doesn't require any outside intervention. Or maybe it's because their simple skeletal structure makes them so easy to carve.

    Our fish is going to cook inside a salt dome, a kind of, well, it's like an adobe oven that's going to not only moderate the temperature of the main oven, but keep moisture inside the fish, even though it's salt. Now I like to use a pound of kosher salt per pound of fish. So we've got a six pound fish so I'm going to use two three-pound boxes of kosher salt. Now believe me, this dish is not going to be salty. Don't worry.

1 lb. Kosher Salt Per 1 lb. Fish

    Now we need to make a kind of mortar. So, I need something to hold it together. We need a liquid that will not only make it wet but will also help it to hold as it cooks. The perfect thing is egg white and I've got four of them here. The proteins in the egg white will set as it cooks and help keep moisture inside the fish where we want it. I'm also going to add about a half a cup of water. Now I'm going to put the other box of salt right on top of this. You basically want to work this into a mortar, really. It's, it's...If you've ever done any brick laying this is exactly the same kind of thing.

4 Egg Whites

    Now since we are going to be walling this guy up in a mound of salt, we've got one opportunity to seal some flavors up in there with him. And we're going to do that with aromatics. Stuff just laying around in your refrigerator—like fennel—works wonderfully with striped bass. Just chop up a few oranges, a few lemons, pack it in there. You'll be surprised. The essential oils that are inside citrus, literally, they'll go through the whole body. I like to use a little bit of parsley.
    Time to build a cozy little dome for one. Now we start by laying down about a half inch bed for Charlie here. The bottom is important because most ovens bake from the bottom up. So this is where the heat's going to be coming from. We want to make sure there are no breaks in this bed. We'll lay him on. And there he goes. Head is going to hang off a little, the tail a little. That's okay. Now we just kind of bring the salt up close. And we're looking for a nice uniform seal all the way around so we're going to let thing just kind of drop down. Be architecturally sound. Try not to push down too hard when you do this. He's a sturdy fish but he's not going to tolerate too much pounding. So just try to smooth it on, don't pack it on. Now work everything down towards the tail. It will stay more even that way. You may think that you're not going to use all of the salt, but I almost always do.

    Now, straight into the middle of a 450 degree oven. And if he doesn't fit all the way, ... [displays kitchen shears] ... no problem. [cuts tail off] Nobody eats these things anyway.


Considered a delicacy in many Asian cuisines,
shark fin is most often used in soup.

    Forty minutes and our fish is at a cozy 131 degrees. Which is perfect because carry over is going to take it another five maybe six degrees. Just let him sit for about ten minutes.
    [after the fish a few minutes] Now you're going to have some fun.

AB: Hammer!  [is handed a hammer]

    Now first crack the salt dome. Think archeology, not house framing. If you're lucky, your dome is going to come off in a couple of big, beautiful pieces exposing the lovely fish below.

AB: Brush. [is handed a brush]

    Splendid. Now just treat him like home plate or whatever it is they brush off.

AB: Fish knife. [is not handed a fish knife] 

    No fish knife. Okay.

AB: Uh, pie server.  [is handed a pie server]

    Yeah, that's it. Use the serrated side. It makes things a lot easier. And just move up the back, just cutting through the skin of the fish. It's got to go all the way to the head. And then kind of come around the shoulder area, rather. Then you can just kind of get the skin peeling up and it should lift right away. Now that's a wonderful moment.
    Just go in from the back and slide right down the rib line and it's just going to come right off. Look how cleanly that separates. That's that simple bass skeleton working for us. And just plate it up in big loose chunks.
    Now once you're taken all the meat off of one side, just repeat going down the other. Because basically this is two kind of big muscle groups that run down each side of the fish. Now what's really amazing is that the meat up here by the shoulders tastes completely different than the meat down by the tail because of the aromatics. It's almost like getting two fish in one. Which is pretty cool.
    Now here's the thing I really love. Just grab the tail. Give it a little twist and the whole thing [spine] will come off in one chunk. Now you can easily get to the fillets underneath.

AB: Sorry, Charlie. Your HMO wouldn't cover the chiropractor.

    The bottom fillet is exposed and all you've got to do is scoop them right out of the skin. And in just a couple of minutes, you have completely disassembled your fish into an incredibly fragrant plate. Time to eat.

Salt domes also work with: Red Snapper, Small Salmon, Grouper and Rockfish.

Harry's Farmers Market - Later Same Day

    Besides whole fish, a top-drawer fish shop will also carry a wide range of fabricated cuts. Now a fillet is basically one side of a fish removed from the bone parallel to the spine. Now on a large fish it's also called a side. Now fillet also refers to any portion cut taken from a side. So basically, if your piece of fish is laying on a plate and the grain or the texture of the meat is running parallel to the table, then you're in possession of a fillet as opposed to a steak.


    Now small, whole fillets from fresh or salt-water fish like brim, hake, catfish, flounder ...

Deep in the Forest - Morning

... and trout are perfect for pan frying.

Picture courtesy of Means Street Productions

    Or as many fry-fearful food writers like to say, sautéing, which isn't the same thing at all. Pan frying starts with your biggest, heaviest pan over high heat. Now, the fish. I went fishing just this morning and, I did okay. [opens his cooler full of fish fillets] Took me a few minutes to break all these down, but hey, what the hey.

    Now, while the pan is heating up, we will salt lightly our trout and give it a little bit of ground pepper. And here's the key. We're going to lightly dredge it in flour. Just kind of lay it in, give it a shake, turn it over, give it a shake. Now here's the important thing. You want to shake off as much of the excess flour as possible.

    Now once the pan is good and hot we're going to add about a tablespoon of canola oil. Now the canola oil has got a really high smoke point which is good because we're also going to add some butter. Now butter has a very low smoke point. But the nice thing about butter is that it's going to add a lot of flavor and it's going to allow our fish to brown and get a nice golden crust on it. Which is a good thing.

1 Tbsp Canola Oil
1 Tbsp Butter

    But one of the keys to pan frying is you want the pan to be really hot and you want the fat to be completely melted. So, I'm just going to swirl this around until it foams out almost all the way. Then food into the pan. Here's the second important point. Be sure that you lay it into the pan away from you. And make sure you move the pan for at least, ah, ten, ten seconds I'd say. The reason for that is that we don't want the fish to stick to the pan and fish, being all protein, is pretty notorious for that. Moving it around is going to give it time to form a nice crust and that crust won't stick to the pan.
    Now we're going to leave this alone for about two minutes or until golden brown.

Deep in the Forest

    About four minutes has gone by and our fish has taken on a lovely crust. Time to turn. Now, important: this is hot so don't turn it towards you or you could end up looking like the elephant man. I just put in my spatula, put one finger on its back, and lay him over away, like that. Oh, look at all that color. Now that's the butter's doing right there. You wouldn't get that with just canola oil.
    Now this isn't going to take very long so we want to make sure that we've got our sauce ingredients together. I have some capers and we've got some lemon and, oh, yeah, chopped parsley. I almost forgot the chopped parsley. Now as soon as we start to see these muscles separate, that means he's done. We're going to move this guy right off onto a plate. Big guy, too. And try to keep most of the butter in the pan because we want that. Ah, that's going to be good.

    I'm just going to add a little additional pat of butter for our sauce. Get that melted and then we're going to add the capers and lightly fry them. Now capers, by the way, are the brined buds of a flower that comes off an evergreen tree in the Mediterranean. And they add a lot of flavor to whatever party they're invited to. I'm just going to toss them in and lightly fry those for maybe 10, 15 seconds. Don't want to really take on any color. Just let them crisp up a little on the outside.

1 Tbsp Capers

    To finish the sauce we're going to add some lemon juice. But the lemon juice, as soon as it hits the pan, is going to try to jump out of the pan and if it does it will take fat with it. Fat burns, believe me. I've lost several sets of eyebrows. So, I'm going to turn the heat off before I add the lemon juice. See all that steam? That's got fat with it. That could be on fire if we weren't careful. I'm going to go with two lemons. There we go. Now, right over our fish. Oh yeah. Now maybe a little bit of parsley to dress and it's breakfast time for me. Go back to your own camp site.

Fish & visitors stink after 3 days.-Ben Franklin

Harry's Farmers Market - Again

    Usually cut from a heartier, meatier fish, a steak is a cross-section cut perpendicular to the spine. Now while a steak cut from a medium size fish like this salmon might encompass an entire cross-section of the fish, a steak from a larger, say game fish like this swordfish or tuna, it would probably be cut from one of the four long loins, individual muscles that run through the body.


    Since they're cut across the grain, steaks don't stick quite the way fillets do, which means they're perfect for the grill. Unlike clean and uniform fillets, steaks like this salmon have shapes that make them difficult to cook evenly not to mention rib or pin bones, vertebrae and other pleasantly inedible parts. So when I prep mine for the grill I take a cue from fillet mignon.

Pin Bone

    Start by cutting about and inch off of one of the belly flaps. Now using a thin bladed knife, cut away the ribs and gut lining and be sure to leave about an inch of skin on the flap opposite the one you shortened. Then curl the steak into a round using the inch of skin to close the deal. A double pass of butcher's twine will keep things from unraveling over the heat.

The Back Porch


    A clean grill is your best no-stick insurance. So, if your grate looks like a geological formation, get after it with a steel brush, or even better, a pumice stone. Otherwise your fish may literally, and permanently, weld to the grate. Now constant light cleaning beats sand blasting any day, so I'm always rubbing old fireball here with an old terry cloth towel that I've rolled and tied like a little roast and dipped in just a little canola oil. The other no-stick secret is heat. The quicker the outside of the fish sears, the better for all concerned. For one inch steaks, I want a medium hot fire which means I should be able to hold my hand just over the grate ... OWW! ... about that long.

    Now, you know we don't go for fancy, gourmet flavors around here. But, a spice rub would certainly be appropriate. Now, for this salmon, I'm going to start with about a teaspoon of whole cumin seed, about the same amount of coriander and fennel seed and I'm going to add about maybe half a teaspoon of green pepper corn. Now, just lay that out on a doubled- over piece of heavy duty foil and then just put it right over the fire. And shake it gently for about a minute maybe a minute and a half until you smell the herbs or the coriander spontaneously combusts, which is okay, too. Then straight to the grinder.


Cumin    Peppercorns


Coriander seeds produce the herb called Cilantro

    Now, I'm the first to admit you could do this in an electric coffee mill. But, the truth is is that there's a lot of great essential oils in these spices that would kind of get beat up in there so I find it's a lot easier and, well, a lot cheaper to just keep around an extra pepper mill to do the job. I do so many rubs I just keep it on hand. So lightly coat the steaks on both sides with canola or olive oil and give them a good sprinkling with a pinch of sea or kosher salt. And then, grind on.
    Fish on to fire. Now once the food is down, and this is especially true of fish, you've got to leave it alone. As it cooks it'll develop a crust and eventually let go of the grill. So be patient and you will be rewarded.

The Porch

GUEST: The Mad Chef

    While you were gone I took the liberty of flipping our steaks which have taken on a lovely, kind of golden brown crust. Now, I know. You'd love to have an actual cooking time. And so would I. But unfortunately I can only offer the phrase made famous by French chefs everywhere ...

    You must cook it ...

MAD CHEF: ... until it's done.
AB: Thank you chef.

    There are just too many factors to set a time. But keep feeling it. When you think you're close gently excavate with the tip of a sharp knife. Now if the flesh is just starting to flake but looks translucent towards the center odds are you're close to medium rare. Which is perfect for salmon. If it's out-and-out raw on the inside and crispy on the outside move it away from the coals, put on the lid and let it gently bake to the temperature of your choice.
    Just snip the string with a pair of scissors or kitchen shears and odds are good that the string will come off right along with the skin. And you'll be left with a perfect, little salmon tenderloin. Served with a simple side salad and just a nice vinaigrette and to tell you the truth, I don't think you can beat this.

Tennessee Aquarium

    In contrast to our current surroundings you've probably noticed that we chose only dry cooking methods today. It's not because we've got anything against poaching or steaming, it's just that, well, dry cooking methods are the best and easiest and fastest way to bring out the fresh flavors of fish.

AB: [to a fish] I'll be with you in a minute.

    Now just remember, no matter what fish you choose or chooses you, no matter how you cook it ...

AB: [to a fish swimming in front of him] ... wait your turn ...

 ... just remember, buy fresh, handle properly, season thoroughly and cook simply. Stick with those rules and I guarantee you're going to land some good eats.

AB: [to a fish] Hey, where do you think you're going? Get back ov-- ... I've got a pan like this big. Hey, don't make me come over there.

    Visit us on the web at www.foodtv.com.

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010