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THE COOKING ISSUE | TECHNIQUE, REFINED

Bring a little drama to the table

March 21, 2007

A whole fish is beautiful to look at and makes a spectacular presentation at the table. But that means taking the meat off the bones for serving. Don't worry, it isn't hard, and with only a little practice, you'll be filleting tableside like a continental maitre d'.

All you'll need are two serving spoons and a basic working knowledge of how a fish is built, or at least where the bones are buried.

The most important key to success is making sure the fish is thoroughly cooked. If it isn't, the flesh will be almost impossible to separate cleanly from the bones. It helps to let the fish rest for a few minutes off the heat to finish cooking through to the center. The fish will be perfectly done when a knife slips in easily along the back, and you can begin to lift the top fillet free.

All round fish are built in essentially the same way (as opposed to flatfish, such as halibut and sole). There is a strong central spine with large rib bones coming off of it. Then there are smaller bones that anchor the fins and embrace the body cavity.

Use one spoon to make a cut along the back of the fish. Then remove the top fillet by lifting and pushing gently all along this line until you feel the fillet come free from the spine. It should come off neatly in one piece. (If it's easier for you, use a knife for this, but a spoon should work just fine.)

Cut the fillet free behind the head and then, working with both spoons, carefully lift the fillet away from the head and spine and place it skin-side down on the serving plate.

The only smaller bones that should be attached to this top fillet are the ones that line the body cavity. You should be able to see these quite easily -- or at least the tips of them.

Delicately scrape the tips of the bones and pull them away. (Or you can just remove that entire section -- there's not that much meat there, really.)

To free the second fillet, use the two spoons to carefully lift the spine by the tail; the backbone and head should come free. If the bones seem to stick, loosen them slightly by running the tip of the spoon along the ribs, as if you were playing a xylophone.

Once you've removed the major bones, remove the small cavity bones just as you did with the top fillet. Then there's one more step: Each of the major fins is anchored by a set of small bones as well, so check along the top and bottom of the fillet to remove those.

The only problem left is politely refusing all the tips your guests will insist on slipping you. On the other hand, maybe that's not a problem at all.

Russ Parsons

On the Web

For step-by-step photos showing how to fillet a fish for serving, please go to latimes.com/food.

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