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Last week I was asked, “Where can I get good seafood in Chattanooga?” This person wasn’t looking for a restaurant recommendation, but had a doe-eyed hopefulness that somehow I could direct them to a magical wonderland where seafood was being beamed directly from the fisherman’s line to beautifully arranged cases piled high with crushed ice and glistening fishies. But we live in Chattanooga, TN. This means any seafood that makes it to your plate has to be packed, loaded, shipped, unloaded and unpacked before you will ever get your paws on it.
I am fortunate enough to live just blocks away from one of the few dedicated seafood markets in this area, Sirens Seafood and Steak Market at the foot of Signal Mountain. They are locally owned, have an excellent selection of seafood, and they are clean. I mean really clean. If your seafood market smells like the bottom of a fishing boat after a long, hot day on the water, then you need to find another seafood market before your digestive tract turns into an incubator. Yes, Greenlife has a fair selection of seafood, and yes, they can order almost anything, but drive the extra couple of minutes to Sirens and support your neighbors. Most of their fish has only been out of the water for 24-48 hours and comes primarily from day boats as opposed to large commercial vessels. Plus, their prices are as good as or better than anyone else in town.
Buying A Whole Fish
Why buy a whole fish when I can buy filets instead? For the same reasons you buy whole chickens—when the flesh is cooked while still on the bone, it tastes juicier and is more flavorful. Look for bright red gills and no fishy smell. Many people believe that if a fish has clear eyes then it’s fresh. That’s not always true. Ask your fishmonger if you are unsure.
Eating the whole fish also reduces waste and helps fish populations. Untold pounds of perfectly good fish meat are being dumped into the sea after the fillets are removed from the carcass. With overfishing and the rising cost of seafood, it certainly makes more sense to avoid waste wherever we can.
Cooking A Whole Fish
If it’s your first time cooking a whole fish, go with something you know you like to eat. Grouper, sea bass, snapper, tilapia, salmon—whatever fish you already enjoy will be even better cooked whole. Ask the fishmonger to scale it, gut it, remove the gills, and remove the fins for you.
The best method for cooking a whole fish is however you like it. They are delicious roasted, broiled, pan-fried, poached, or deep-fried. Just Google “how to cook a whole fish” and pick out a recipe that sounds good and don’t overcomplicate it!
Eating A Whole Fish
To remove the meat from the bones, take a knife and make an incision along the dorsal fin from head to tail, and then make an incision to separate the top fillet from the head. Carefully slip two spoons under the fillet to loosen it from the bone and move it to a plate. The top fillet may not come off in one whole piece, especially if you have a large fish, so don’t worry if you break it. Lift the backbone from tail to head and move the carcass to the side to be dealt with separately.
The Good Stuff
The head has some of the best-tasting meat a fish has to offer. Fish cheeks have become a darling of the fine-dining world, but have long been considered a special treat in every culture where whole fish are eaten. The cheeks have a very sweet and an almost scallop-like flavor and texture. The meat above the forehead is scant but also extremely flavorful. Just dig in and root around in the head for all of those tasty little bits. It’s like eating crab legs—a little trouble but worth the effort.