I’ve said it before, but this past weekend reminded me why I find the process of turning an animal into meat rewarding on several levels.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I am particularly fond of slime and guts and those smelly places within the nether regions of any creature’s body. It’s that I like doing something that requires precision with a blade so keen I’ve cut myself without realizing it — is that my blood or the creature’s? Thankfully, such instances are rare these days. I may not have perfected the craft, but I know my way around pretty much anything that swims, crawls, flies or runs.
Cutting fish or jointing deer or breaking down a bird shows you that all of us are really very close to one another: I have shoulder blades, as does every other mammal I’ve cut. We all — even fish — have livers. And hearts. Some creatures have specialty bits that make them fun to work with, in a gastronomical sense. I look for nice orange roe in fish, gizzards in birds and kidneys in deer. All are little joys at the table.
I did not catch the halibut I broke down this past weekend. Or rather, I did, but through misunderstanding. Holly and I fished the San Francisco Bay on the Tigerfish with our friend Evan, and Evan had hooked a sizable California halibut, which means one larger than 10 pounds.
Evan was using a rental rod with the drag set too loose, but I thought he said he was hung up on the bottom. I was once a deckhand, so I have some experience getting hooks out of snags. So I took the rod and tested it. Nope. This was a fish. Now I should have immediately given the rod back to Evan, but we were fishing in only about 10 feet of water and in a flash the halibut was at the side of the boat. Andrea the mate netted it and we had ourselves a 15-pound halibut.
That’s how I came by this big fish, the largest flatfish I had ever taken a knife to. Everything was large and easy to spot, and the cheek meat was as big as a half-dollar. The halibut had slightly unripe roe sacs, which I saved as well.
Evan had caught a smaller halibut, too, and between them both we wound up with 12 1/2 pounds of pure meat, plus the roe, plus the rack of the large fish I used to make one of the best fish stocks I’ve made in a long time.
We ate the roe last night, fried in bacon fat and served with a wedge of lemon and some chives. This is how I serve shad roe, but I learned something this time: The unripe roe of the halibut was creamy, not grainy like a ripe shad roe. Holly caught a bit of liver taste, and we both agreed that the consistency and even the taste was remarkably similar to hummus! So next time I get an unripe roe, I will use it for a bruschetta. Lesson learned.
We also ate the cheeks, served atop a shrimp risotto. They have the deepest flavor of any part of the fish — this too is something universal, as hog jowls and beef cheeks hold a similarly lofty position on those beasts. Salted, dusted in flour and fried in bacon fat. Heavenly.
These little delicacies are my reward for the hard work of cutting and slicing and packing and simmering and freezing.Â Bits and bobbles are the harbinger ofÂ many wonderful meals made from more standard cuts. This is what I think about as I fillet or joint something Holly and I have brought home.
I don’t view breaking down an animal as mere dissection. To me it is a literally visceral reminder that we are all of a piece, and that each piece has a purpose.Â