I have this stupid idea that I’m going to try to have us live a year or two longer by making everyone around me eat more fish. Trouble is, I grew up in a very meat and potato family and am now surrounded by meat men–married one, gave birth to two more. They’ll put up with shellfish if it’s cooked in some kind of broth or stew. Raw clams are okay if we happen to be down the shore. But anything with fins is basically non-negotiable.
But consider that sweet face above: a whole red snapper caught wild in U.S. waters, according to the fish lady who I generally believe. I picked out a very simple, vaguely Mediterranean, recipe consisting of a rub of olive oil, garlic, shallots, capers and hot red peppers. I added fresh lemon juice on my own.
I followed the instructions: slit the fish down its underbelly, make 5 gashes on either side and slather the rub on the flesh, particularly into the little slits. Let the fish sit for a while.
When you’re ready to cook, make an aluminum foil pillow and place it under the snapper’s chin so it’s sort of plumped up and its body splayed open on either side.
Then place it in the 425 degree oven for 30 minutes until the skin crisps.
Here’s where things started turning evil. The meat-eater I married has a phobia about fish bones. He grew up in Cleveland and Denver and the closest his family came to dining on anything with fins came from brook trout, a notoriously bony fish. But his mother loved it and a recipe for trout almondine. She seemed to have cooked trout quite a bit and my husband constantly assures me that he nearly choked to death every time.
His (1) phobia is so deep that before bringing home the whole red snapper I’ve only cooked fish filet and each time he rears back in horror until I promise him he’ll like it and there are absolutely no bones anywhere. He never believes me and, although he generally ends up liking whatever the filet is, he finishes dinner very much as if he’s survived a vicious mugging.
Back to the snapper. It looked and smelled lovely and I proceeded to the final step which called for cutting away the sides into two serving pieces. The recipe assured me they would easily fall away from the bones. They didn’t. In fact, it began to crumble with a lot of flesh clinging to thin, translucent bones.
What to do? This: I sifted through the meat, picking out every bone I could find and then arranging it in some kind of purposeful way across the rice I was serving. I also sprinkled on a middle eastern spice called (2)sumac, figuring it would go with the overall Mediterranean flavors that would hopefully beguile him away from any lurking dangers.
I placed the plate down in front of him.
“No bones?” he asked.
“Maybe one or two tiny ones, nothing to worry about,” I replied.
He frowned and tepidly lowered in his fork. A minute or two passed before he came across a tiny filament, and then another, and a couple of more but, he finished his plate.
He survived! No one was unduly harmed in the eating of the fish. And we are still married.
Lesson learned: If a recipe says a whole fish will easily debone into filet, be prepared that it won’t and perhaps have a camouflaging ingredient or sauce nearby, along with an excuse as to why you are serving chunks and shreds instead of the promised whole fish. Also, if someone really has a fear of bones, be honest unless you know the Heimlich maneuver.
1. I’m not going anywhere near his mother’s role in his phobia because, in truth, she was a lovely woman, although a limited cook, who meant well. It’s just one of his issues that a therapist obviously failed to resolve.
2. Sumac is a wonderful ingredient to have around. It’s a berry that grows in the Middle East and is generally finely ground. It has a gentle lemony flavor and its beautiful deep red color makes any plain dish more inviting . You’ll find it sold in Middle Eastern markets. I’ve started to see it in my local store, packaged by a company called Spicely.