I remember the first fish I ever caught, cooked and ate. I knew I liked fish but my parents weren’t fishermen so fish was seldom on the menu at home. If we had fish at my house, it was probably fish sticks.
My experience at eating a personally caught fish came at my grandparent’s home. I’d caught plenty of fish before — tiny bluegills from under the boat dock, bullheads at a pond on the outskirts of town. I threw them all back because I had no idea of how to clean or fillet any of them to get them ready to cook.
Fishing with grandpa, my bobber went down, I tightened the line and pulled a “giant” (by my standards) bluegill from the pond we were fishing. It was “hand” sized — at least to my schoolboy aged hands. My grandpa congratulated me and said we’d keep it, clean it and my grandma would cook it up for me.
As I recall, he used his pocketknife to first scrape the fish vigorously from the tail towards the head to make the scales fly off. Grampa did the first side, then he turned his knife over to me to de-scale the other side, it took me longer, but I attacked the job with determination. Then, grandpa cut off the head, just behind the gills, cut up the belly and used his finger to scoop the guts out of the belly cavity. A quick rinse with the hose and the fish was turned over to chef “Grandma.”
Of course, it was the best fish I’d ever tasted, at least in my mind. I’ve eaten plenty of bluegills, cleaned and cooked identically since that long ago day. They are still terrific — except the fish cleaned this way are not boneless.
That’s almost unthinkable to many fish eaters, but properly cooked, it’s a simple process to “fillet” the fish once it’s on the plate. Once you figure out how the bones are situated inside the fish, it’s easy to separate the meat and the bones with nothing more than a table knife and fork.
Why not just fillet the fish first? At the time, I didn’t have a clue about how to do that. With a sharp knife, a bit of instruction and some practice, filleting isn’t difficult. I’d just never been shown how to do it. Once I learned how fillet a freshly caught fish, I learned something else.
Though the fillets still tasted great and were easier to eat, they didn’t have the same flavor. It turns out, both leaving the skin on a fish as well as the bones in the fish add a subtle, but noticeable and distinctive measure of flavor to the meat of fish.
I now find myself in lots of fish cleaning facilities. It’s rare to see anyone preparing fish for the pan, fryer, grill or oven any way other than filleting. Filleting is my favorite way, but me and my family, eat fish I’ve caught on a regular basis, we use a variety of recipes and occasionally that includes bone it or at least, skin-on fish.
Panfish — perch, bluegills, crappies and others are perfect choices for the scale, behead and “de-gut” method a.k.a. “Grampa’s way.” The smaller size allows it to be pan fried and still cook through easily; and, you get the benefit of both the added flavor of both skin and bones. Go ahead and eat the skin on panfish prepared this way.
Bigger fish, such as walleyes, can be cleaned this way, as well, but instead of frying, use a recipe which relies on baking or poaching to actually cook the meat. For some of the larger walleyes I catch, I make “skin-on” fillets. I cut the fillets off the spine and remove any rib bones, but leave on the skin. These unskinned fillets either go on a grill or are sauteed, skin down in a olive oil/butter mix. The fish cook from the bottom up. The skin is then removed before serving. For truly large fish — say 10 pounds or larger — I like to “steak” them. Step one, remove the innards, then cut the fish like making pickle slices from whole pickle. I use a regular knife to cut down to the spine, then switch to a serrated knife to “saw” through the back bone. These steaks have the advantage of being both skin on, as well as bone-in — with full flavor regardless of cooking method.
Tired of the same old fish recipes you always use? Don’t change the recipe, change the way the fish is cleaned.