Fishin' Whole Transcript

A Group Therapy Meeting Place

GUESTS: Therapist
                   Therapy Clients: Phyllis, #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6

THERAPIST: Group, we have someone new with us tonight and sheís ready to start healing.
PHYLLIS: Hi, my name is Phyllis and Iím afraid of whole fish.
ALL: [unenthusiastically] Hi, Phyllis.
P: I really donít know where to start. Itís the whole thing. Itís the heads and the tails, and their ...  and their fins, and their scales. Itís just too much for me.
C#1: Yeah, what about those eyes, huh? Ever notice how theyíre lookiní at Ďya?
C#2: Heís right. I had a dream about those eyes. Dead eyes, stariní at you black and beady, like dollís eyes.
C#3: [hysterically] Theyíre filthy and disgusting, I tell you! Besides, why would I want to buy a whole fish? If I wanted a steak, would I buy a whole cow?
ALL: [mumbles of disagreement] No, absolutely not.
AB: I would.
T: Ahh, another new member tonight.
AB: No, no. Iím just here waiting on the next group.
T: Oh, Coulrophobics anonymous?
P: Whatís that?
T: Fear of clowns.
C#1: Clowns? What sort of sissyís afraid of clowns?
AB: Hey buster, clowns are scary. Whole fish, though, theyíre not. Believe me, I mean, compared to cuts like filets and steaks, whole fish are usually fresher, more flavorful. Theyíre a lot more versatile. And theyíre a lot more fun to deal with. And believe me, you get a little bit of experience under your belt, and youíll find that thereís really no difference between a, I donít know, a giant mahi-mahi and a little bitty goldfish, like, uh [pulls out a plastic bag], like the one I brought today.

ALL: [gasp and retreat in fear]
P: [faints]
T: Phyllis!

    Um, believe me, with a little science, some know-how, and decent ingredients, whole fish, unlike spooky clowns, can, and will be ...

["Good Eats" theme plays]

Georgia Aquarium*
Atlanta, GA - 10:15 am

    [AB is scuba diving in one of the aquarium's tanks]* If you want to understand how to cook whole fish, it really helps to have a good idea of how fish do what they do. And that means having some understanding of anatomy. Thereís no better way to gain this type of knowledge than through direct observation, which is why Iím taking a walk on the wet side in the Ocean Voyage, or Habitat, at the state-of-the-art Georgia Aquarium.
    Now most terrestrial critters, like myself, fight a constant battle with gravity just to stay upright. But most fish are blessed with a structure called a floatation bladder. Now what this thing does is, it allows them to essentially cover, anywhere in the water column, that they want to go. That means that they can concentrate their muscle energy on locomotion.
    Now, some fish slither like snakes. Some fly like birds. But most of the fish that make it onto our dinner plates locomote via oscillation. If you look around, youíll see that most of these fish actually twitch side-to-side. They use muscles that go down both sides of their spines, called ďmyotomesĒ. They relax them, they flex them, and they move through the water very efficiently.
Now, oscillating can create very high speeds, up to 15 miles an hour. But whatís really good for us cooks, is that it requires a lot of muscle mass, anywhere from 50 to 65% of the body weight of the fish. Now these muscles are different. Itís not like, say, a chicken. A chicken, you know, has dark meat and itís got light meat: fast and slow-twitch muscles. And a cow, of course, is really different because it has different muscles depending on how far they are from the hoof and the horn. But not a fish. From the tip to the tail, they are uniform. More good news for us. But the muscles are not the same on all fish. No.
    Depending on where they live, migratory patterns, diet, and territories, they have very different types of flesh. For instance, this grouper that you see over here, this is a warm-water fish, relatively slow-moving. So, his meat is very light,has a mild flavor, and it overcooks very quickly. However, if you were to take, say, a fast-moving tuna which swims mostly in cold water and travels very deep, that meat is very oily and red and more steak-like in texture.

AB: [to a big fish swimming overhead] Boy, youíre lucky they donít allow spear guns down here. Oh well.

The Ocean Voyager habitat at the Georgia Aquarium
is the biggest fish bowl in the world.

The Kitchen

    Allow me to introduce you to one of the most versatile fin fish you will ever find, the striped bass. Which wild, can grow up to 40 pounds and beyond. But in its farm state, like this, itís usually anywhere from one and a half pounds to three pounds. This fish is firm, yet flaky. Sweet, but not fatty. Itís just a very versatile fish. And in its farm state, it is very stable, which is good.
    Now regardless what kind of fin fish you bring home, storage is crucial. You want to get it on ice and you want there to be a way for the water that melts away from that to get away. So, you can see I have a perforated vessel and another vessel underneath so the water can run out. Stored thusly, you should be able to keep your fish viable for three to four days, depending on how fresh it was when you bought it.

AB: [to the fish] Come on, boys. Time to go.

Back Porch

    Regardless of its culinary destination, if itís a fish and itís in my hands, itís going to lose its fins. They are full of spikes. And all you have to do is be poked by a couple of them to know that they really hurt. And they get infected easily. [spreads out the fin on the fish before cutting] Look at that. That is nasty. Itís like a cactus covered in slime. So thatís coming off ... Dorsal fins. Pectoral fins just get in the way; that comes off. The only fin that Iím going to leave intact, in fact, is the tail. And that is only because I need a handle to hang on to for the scaling process.
    Now the reason that I donít let the fish mongers take off the scales is that they are a very nice protective coating. Once the scales come off, the fish will start to go downhill quickly. The problem is, taking them off makes a big mess, especially if you use one of these unitasker scalers. Me? I like to just use a pair of shears. Of course, having a pair that comes apart like this is a good thing. So what Iíve doneóinstead of hosing off the entire outside of the houseóis I made myself a little scaling box here out of just a storage bin and a couple of old gloves. [the box is a transparent tub about 2' x 4' turned upside down with 2 holes in the side in which gloves are attached, much like Homer Simpson's work area in the opening scenes of The Simpsons] And this keeps everything nice and contained. So, lay out your fish. And I generally start with the back away, blade down, and start scraping back and forth, kind of like peeling a potato. I usually work from the tail to the head several times. There are a lot of them. But donít worry, itís hard to hurt the fish at this point.
    [finished] There. He feels smooth. But of course, heís still covered in scales. So weíll give him a quick rinse with clean water right down in the bin. Now, it is time to consider our culinary options, which are many.

Farmed striped bass are a hybrid of striped and white bass and can be distinguished from wild by their broken stripes.

The Kitchen

    I am convinced that every seafood cookbook on the planet has one recipe that calls for shoving some poor fish full of herbs, and then roasting it fast and hot in an oven. It just doesnít make any sense. I mean, if you want to infuse the fish with herbal goodness, youíre going to have to slow things down. And even then, Iím not sure that roasting is the way to do it. No, Iím pretty sure this mission calls for a hybrid method.

    First step: boost your hot box to 500 degrees. That is a lot of heat. But donít worry, itíll be absorbed slowly.

500 Degrees

    The method that I have in mind would be perfect for our two beautiful little striped bass that we have here, on ice, of course. But theyíre going to need some help in the flavor department. For instance, some herbage. One big bunch of parsley and another big bunch of dill will do nicely. As would, ooh, some citrus, a lemon. Also, an onion, which we would never keep in here [the refrigerator], now would we? 1 Large Bunch Parsley
1 Large Bunch Dill
1 Large Lemon
    First, we need a little bit of oil [into a large broiler pan] just to make sure that nothing sticks. And go ahead and load up the fish and kind of lube everything, because we need it oiled up. And that will hold on to the seasonings. Salt, inside and out, and pepper, both sides. 2 Tbs. Olive Oil

2 (1-1Ĺ lbs.) Whole Striped

1 Tbs. Kosher Salt
2 tsp. Freshly Ground Black

    Now, we are going to move the fish off and the greenery on. Just  about half of it. Parsley and dill, onion, and the lemon last [which are in slices]. And thatís right up against the skin of the fish. 1 Large Onion, Sliced
    Now, the fish back on. And Iím going to point one kind of in opposite ways. It makes a tighter package. There. And the rest of the lemon. More onion and all of the greenery. Basically in a perfect world, weíd have a kind of mound that completely hides any of the fish. The fish wonít be touching the pan, and nothing will be able to touch on the top. A little oil will help to hold things down and also help to carry some of the fat-soluble flavors out of the herbs. 1 Tbs. Olive Oil

    Good. Thatís a nice, compact little mound. A layer of foil, properly applied [creased down over the roasting pan], will actually help to build up some pressure inside of the vessel during cooking. And that is going to help push some of the herb flavor into the fish. Weíre good to go.
    Slide the fish in [the oven] and set your favorite timer to 30 minutes.
    [later] If thereís a cardinal sin in fish cookery, itís overcooking. And really, the only way to avoid it, is to use a thermometer. Luckily, this kind [a Thermapen] you can just punch through the foil, into the fish. And weíre looking for 120 degrees. Iím a couple of degrees hot, but that is okay. Time to evacuate.

    Now, cooking fish is pretty gosh darn tricky, but moving it is positively treacherous. Thatís why I use my secret weapons, turkey lifters! Is there a word for a tool that is really bad at the job that itís designed for, but really good for other things? I donít know. Iíll have to work on that. Anyway, just use this to kind of scrape off the greenery and wiggle under, and airlift to, a platter with fresh herbs. I like the herb flavor; just not the way these old ones look. Same thing here. [the second fish] Get right under and move it over. There, that looks good.
    Now, the lemon flavor is already there, but thereís no reason not to wake it up with some fresh lemon. Just a few wedges for squeeziní at the table.

The largest striped bass ever landed was a 125 pound
female caught off North Carolina in 1891.

The Backyard

GUEST: ABís Next Door Neighbor

    [AB is standing next to his backyard fence, his neighbor is working next door] Due to their large surface to mass ratio, relatively uniform skeletal structure, and lack of connective tissue, whole fish are especially well-suited to grilling. Now, my neighbor, well, he often has the common challenges. [removes a plank of the fence separating the two backyards to reveal that his neighbor is grilling a whole fish] Letís take a look at his fish.

NEIGHBOR: [is cooking a badly burned fish on a charcoal grill and is having a tough time turning it over, it is quite mangled]

    Oh yeah, heís got heat control issues. And heís got sticking issues. And, ooh, turning and moving issues too. You know, some folks try to get around these problems by encasing their fish in medieval cages. Me, I prefer to use a gentler, more ancient method.

Puppet Land

GUESTS: Native American Male and Female Dolls

    Centuries ago, native Americans in the Pacific Northwest learned to preserve fish by stretching them on cedar or alder planks which were planted upright beside a smoldering fire. Often, the men tended to the fish, while the women gathered fuel for the fire. This method made up for the fact that metal grills had yet to be invented. And, it infused the fish with a smoky goodness.

[effecting the voices of the dolls which are visualizing what AB has just described]

FEMALE: [carrying firewood] Whatís wrong with this picture?
MALE: Um, nothing.
F: Ohh, men! [throws down firewood]
M: Oh well, at least I have the fish.

Peach State Lumber Products
Kennesaw, GA Ė 2:15 pm

GUEST: A customer

    These days, you can walk in to just about any cooking store and find a selection of cedar, alder, maple, or hickory planks, cut in the three eighths inch thick range. Most come two to a pack, and run anywhere from 10 to 15 dollars. Now if that sounds a wee bit steep to you, and it certainly does to me, you can also head down to your local lumber concern, [spots a product that he likes] ... ah, good ... and purchase a three-quarter to one-inch thick board and have it cut down into a bunch of planks. But remember, most commercial grade lumber has been treated with preservatives, like Creosote, pentachlorophenol, and/or arsenic, none of which are good eats. So, youíre going to want to buy furniture grade wood that is untreated and that has also been kiln-dried.

CUSTOMER: [a little bit upset] Shoot, I been cookiní with pressure-treated shingles all my life just like my Dad. Never hurt me. [walk away, we notice a tail coming out his rear] Tastes good, too.

    [noticing the tail] Is that ... ? Iím glad we had this talk.

Other woods good for planking include cherry, pecan, white oak and apple.

The Kitchen

    Believe it or not, wood is a pretty good insulator, right up to the point where it bursts into flames, which is around 550 degrees. Luckily, this reaction can be delayed by soaking in cold water for at least a couple of hours and up to overnight. And since wood, like ducksówhich isnít small rocksófloats, adding weights is a good idea. [produces two barbell weights] Heck, itís not like Iím using these for anything else, right? There.

AB: [to the submerged planks] Stay!

    [now attending to some fish] Meet Oncorhynchus mykiss, a.k.a. ďrainbow troutĒ. A fresh water cousin of the salmon which is farm-raised in the U.S. And unlike a lot of carnivorous farmed fish that eat more protein than they provide, produce large amounts of waste, and pose a threat to wild populations, trout are quite efficient at feed conversion. They donít make much waste and rarely escape their habitats. Best of all, they are excellent planking fish.

    Speaking of our planks, we have already allowed those to drain for a few moments. So weíll just place those out here on a half-sheet pan and load up the fish.

2 (1-2 lbs.) Whole Trout

    One of the nice things about working on planks is that you can, you know, basically use them as cutting boards. But in this case, weíre going to go with the shears again. And weíre going to take off the heads.

AB: [to the fish] Sorry.

    Flip him over, removing that front fin at the same time. And there you have it. Comes off easy, and gosh darn it, the kids love to play with these things. Kidding. Move on down. Get these fins here, the dorsal fin. Thatís where the spines are. Trim the tail. Donít take it all the way off, just trim it. And repeat with the second fish.

    Now for lubing and seasoning: just a little bit of oil. You can use canola oil, olive oil, whatever you like. Just kind of brush that on. Make sure you get inside the cavity. Not only will this help to hold the seasoning, it will help heat move into the fish. There.
Next, the seasoning proper. Salt outside and inside the cavity. Do not forget that. There. And pepper. Obviously, a one-handed pepper grinder has some advantages here. Donít forget inside. There.
1 Tbs. Olive Oil

1 Tbs. Kosher Salt
2 tsp. Freshly Ground Black

    Now, kind of prop the fish up, and spread out the belly flaps so that they sit upright, as if they are swimming. There. Now, off to the grill.

Back Porch

    When planking fish, I like to keep my grill hovering between 375 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The goal: to have the fish be done just as the boards have steamed out and are beginning to char and give up some smoky goodness. What we want to avoid is actual ignition, of course. And I always keep one of these [fire extinguishers] around, just in case. Never had to use it, though.
    Indirect heat, of course, is key. So right now, I only have the middle burner on on my grill. And Iím going to place one far up here, one fish, and the other one way down this way so that theyíre not over direct heat. Iím going to close the lid. Set my timer for 20 minutes. Oh, you donít want to leave the scene.
    [later] Time is up and the fish is temping at, oooh, 122. Thatís just perfect. So weíre going to pull this off. You can see the boards have dried but just barely started to take any char. You can wash those in hot water and use them again and again and again. Of course, you know, the best thing about this method, besides the fact that the fish wonít stick to the grill, and the fact that the meat is subtlety perfumed with smoke, is that there arenít any dishes to wash. Just serve it on the board. Thatís good eats.

In the upper Midwest, whitefish from the Great Lakes is a favorite for planking.

The Kitchen

GUESTS: ABís Doctor
                   The Grim Reaper

    My doctor is always telling me, ďEat more oily fish.Ē, because ...

DOCTOR: ... among other things, like vitamin A and D, itís loaded with polyunsaturated omega-3-fatty acids, which are not only good for your heart, but they actually help regulate your heartbeat, and can stave off prostate cancer ...

... which is just another way of saying oily fish can beat back ...

GRIM REAPER:  [floats by in the background]

    ... well, you know.
    Although most folks think big when it comes to whole fish, my personal favorites are rather Lilliputian. Say hello to Osmerus mordax. Which sounds a lot better than ďsmeltĒówhich is actually the family name, encompassing over a dozen similar species which range in size from about two inches to up to a foot; and run from Labrador all the way around South America to Alaska.

AB: [to the smelts] Come, my darlings. Time to eat.

Other fish that fit into the oily category include
mackerel, herring and orange roughy.

The Kitchen

    Like a lot of the salmon families, smelt are anadromous, meaning that they live in salt water but migrate to fresh water to spawn. When spawning time comes, they are so full of oil that the old-timers used to dry them out and use them as ...  [shows smelt being used as candles], hence the name ďcandle fishĒ. And no, Iím not making this up.

Smelt take their name from the Anglo-Saxon word ďsmoeltĒ, meaning shiny.

Back Porch

    Smelt is best when it is cooked simply; and simply fried happens to be my favorite. As you can see, I have a fry station all set up. Iíve got my dredge zone, my fry zone featuring a 12-inch cast iron skilletówith just enough peanut oil to cover the bottom of the panóover medium-high heat, until the oil shimmers, which it is. I also have a draining station. I have a lid standing by, just in case there are splatters. And a you-know-what [fire extinguisher] standing by just, well, just in case. Letís cook, shall we?

    Each one of our beautiful little smelt will get a dip in lemon juice, freshly squeezed is best. And then it goes directly into a vessel containing highly spiced, or rather, highly seasoned bread crumbs: just kosher salt and some black pepper. Youíll notice that the bread crumbs are a little on the dark side. Thatís because I grind them out of the crust of leftover French bread. And I just cover that up. I only do about three at a time and give it a toss. You could use regular store-bought crumbs if you want. But avoid Japanese or panko-style bread crumbs. Theyíre too clumpy for this application. Fresh Squeezed Lemon Juice

Breadcrumbs With Kosher
    Salt & Freshly Ground Black

    Now, as we add them to the pan, we always add away so that we do not splatter. And Iím only going to cook a few at a time. Let these go three to four minutes on each side or until the smelt are golden brown and delicious.

    [after frying] While theyíre still warm, hit them with a little extra salt and a squeeze of lemon.

Kosher Salt

One female smelt may lay anywhere from 1,400 to 1,800 eggs at a time.

The Kitchen

GUESTS: Clowns

    [AB is sitting at the table and is very nervous] Well, um, I hope that weíve given you the necessary knowledge to try your hand at a few simple whole fish applications. Despite the fact that they do tend to stare at you with their little, beady dollís eyes, thereís ... thereís nothing to be afraid of. [the camera pans back to reveal that AB is sitting with several clowns] Besides, itís .... itís always good to work through your fears ... uh ... right? Heh, sure, sure it is. Huh, see you next time, on, on Good Eats, okay? Okay?

CLOWNS: [turn to look menacingly at us]

[closing credits]

Outtake - The Kitchen

CLOWN: [puts a fake yellow clown nose on AB]
AB: [looks at the camera nervously]

*Alton was the first non-aquarium staff or dive team to scuba at the Georgia Aquarium and specifically the Ocean Voyager tank. Other TV personalities had been there (e.g. Matt Lauer) but they had not dived in the tank. AB is an accomplished and certified diver and went in with staff members for protection. Apparently, the groupers are aggressive.
    Note, this is not the first time AB has scuba-ed at an aquarium. See the Hook, Line and Dinner episode.

Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Proofread by Michael Menninger

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010