Fishing For Carving Tips

ROB KASPER'S MARYLAND

June 02, 1996|By ROB KASPER

Steaks or fillets? That was the choice I wrestled with as I looked down at a whopper, a 40-inch-long rockfish, also known as striped bass. The choice between steaks and fillets is one that successful fish catchers and ordinary fish buyers make on a regular basis. Do they want their fish carved into steaks -- cross-section slices that each contain a small section of backbone? Or do they want it in fillets -- boneless, lengthwise cuts from the sides of a fish?

I chose to fillet my big, just-caught rockfish. But I had passing thoughts about the joys of steak. The main reason I picked fillets over steaks was laziness. I didn't want to scale the big fish. Removing the scales is a nasty job. The fish scales fly. They stick to the floor, to your hair, to your shoes. If I filleted the fish, I could slice the skin away from the meat and thereby avoid the unpleasant business of scaling.

The idea to skin rather than scale came from Jon Boughey, a fellow fisherman and a chef at Fergie's Waterfront Restaurant in Edgewater. He gave me the tip as a fruitful day of fishing aboard Tradition, a charter boat skippered by Mike Lipski, was winding to a close.

Our boat, based at Harrison's Chesapeake House on Tilghman Island, had "limited out." This slang term means that our party of six had caught its limit of six "trophy size" rockfish. In May, early in the rockfish season, a keeper had to be at least 32 inches long. Now () the legal limit is 28 inches, and by mid-July the keeper length for rockfish will be 26 inches long.

After congratulating ourselves for catching the fish, Boughey and I talked about ways to slice them up. Boughey said he was going to fillet his big rockfish. And he described a way to artfully remove the skin from the fillet, and bypass the dreaded flying scales. First, he said, you place a fillet skin side down on a cutting board. Then, you make a small cut with a chef's knife between the skin and the meat, near the tail section of the fillet.

Holding the knife steady with your right hand, you use the left hand to simultaneously pull the skin toward you and shake it from side to side. This pull-and-shake maneuver, Boughey said, produces big, beautiful, skinless fillets.

That, no doubt, is the result when experienced hands are pulling and shaking. When I tried it in my back yard, I got fillets that were medium-size, homely and only somewhat skinless. I got enough fish to fill four freezer bags. A couple of the bags contained fillets, others contained bits of meat known only as "fish parts."

The plenitude of fish parts made me wonder if I might have been better off producing steaks by sawing through the backbone of the gutted fish. So I called a few professional fish handlers and got their opinions on the pros and cons of filleting and steaking.

I spoke with two fellows at the Fisherman's Inn in Grasonville -- general manager Danny Brown and chef Paul Wernsdorfer. And I spoke with Tommy Chagouris, proprietor of Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood in Baltimore's Cross Street Market.

They said that a major factor in a customer's preference for a fillet or a steak is his attitude toward bones. A steak-cut person prefers his fish cooked with the bones in the flesh. A fan of fillets wants his fish flesh bone-free.

"Steak people believe that if you cook fish with the bone in it, the fish has a sweet flavor," Brown said. "Some of them like to nibble on the bones."

"But fillet people, and I am one of them," Brown continued, "don't do bones well."

Fans of the steak cut also claim their piece of fish yields special pleasures. They rave about the flavor of belly flaps, the pieces of the steak that come from the fish's midsection and dangle down from the meaty "shoulders." There are, Wernsdorfer said, belly flap aficionados who crave the crisp flavor of these pieces.

The size of the fish going under the knife is yet another factor in the choice between steaks or fillets, Chagouris said. Swordfish and other large fish take kindly to steak cuts, he said. But a thin fish, like a mahi-mahi, should be filleted.

A flounder, a midsize fish, is filleted for two reasons, he said. First, it is usually not big enough to yield a legitimate-looking steak. Second, a guy sweeping his knife around the the backbone of a long, flat flounder can put on quite a performance. "You can really ham it up when you are filleting flounder," Chagouris said.

Finally, I was told that with some fish I could have it both ways, fillets and steaks. If I got my hands on a big salmon, I could saw the front part of the fish into steaks. Then I could fillet the tail section. The fish professionals told me I could have used this double-cut method to carve up my big rockfish.

For a while it seemed a Solomon-like maneuver that I would try on the next big fish I caught and carved. But then I realized that I would have to scrape the scales off the portion of fish that would be cut into steaks.

So as long as I am a reluctant scaler, I will remain a firm fan of fillets.

Pub Date: 6/02/96

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