General rules for the treatment and preparation of fish

(Recipe #1, pages 124 – 126)

Treatment of Fresh Fish. All freshwater fish and unsalted fish must be prepared while absolutely fresh, because they become unpalatable and unwholesome very quickly. Fish are best when they are killed as soon as they are out of their element, but they are still usable if they die after being caught. There are clear signs of a really fresh fish: the eyes and scales must be bright and clear, the gills bright red with a fresh odor of fish. The whole fish must be firm, but if the gills are firm, the fish must be discarded.

Killing Freshwater Fish. Use a sharp knife to cut lengthwise from the tip of the tail and strike sharply behind the head with the back of the knife. If the fish are to be kept for a few hours, remove the gills, wrap the fish in a moist cloth, and place them in the coldest spot available; do not place them in water, however, because that quickly destroys the best qualities of the flesh.

An eel can be killed by striking its head sharply with a hammer or by grasping the eel in a towel just behind the head and striking it vigorously against the kitchen table or a rock several times; then tie twine behind the head as tight as possible and hang the eel from a convenient hook or nail. Cut around the skin behind the pectoral fins with a sharp knife, loosen about an inch of it, and strip it off from head to tail using a coarse cloth and salt by pulling down vigorously with a firm hand; as soon as you gain momentum, this is easy to accomplish, but you have to aid the process by cutting off the caudal fins. Small eels don’t need to be skinned; rub them vigorously with salt, cut off their fins, cut their bodies open, remove the entrails, and carefully separate the gall bladder from the liver. Rinse them with salt until the water remains clear, cut them diagonally into 2-inch pieces, discard the head and the tip of the tail (reputed to be somewhat toxic), rub the remaining pieces inside and out with salt, bring some vinegar to a boil and pour it over them, and set them aside covered until needed.

For most fish dishes the fish must be scaled. Slice the belly open and remove the entrails, carefully cutting the gall bladder away from the liver, since if accidently pierced it will impart a bitter taste that cannot be rinsed away. Then wash them thoroughly, either leaving them whole or cutting them in appropriate pieces.

When cooking old or large fish, adding a little butter to the water will make them more tender and flaky. If large fish are to be brought to the table cooked until done, place them in the fish poacher on a lifter and place the poacher with boiling salted water on the stove; sprinkle some salt on the fish. Most fish are placed in boiling water and cooked rapidly. Salt-water fish, however, should be cooked over moderate heat to keep them from falling apart.

Salting and Cooking Fish, Sparing Use of Bay Leaves. The use of neither too much nor too little salt and cooking a fish until it is completely done but not overcooked is the mark of a good cook. Rückert asks: “Do you feel it in your fingertips—how much pepper? How much salt?” But since not all fingertips may have the proper sensitivity, the safest course is to taste a little while cooking, so that salt can be added if necessary.

To give the fish a better chance to absorb the salt, leave it in the cooking water for 5–10 minutes after it is done. A fish is done when its fins can be pulled off easily. It should be placed on a deep, heated platter by means of a large spatula. See that the fish, the potatoes accompanying it, and the sauce are piping hot and are brought to the table at the same time.

Bay leaves should be used sparingly in the preparation of fish as well as of meat; since their taste is very assertive, they should be added a bit at a time.

Fish served with oil and vinegar should not be left to cool in the broth they were cooked in but taken out at once. After the broth has cooled, replace them and set them in a cold spot until they are needed.

Frying or Baking Fish. It should be noted that fish fried or baked in an open pan are quickly done and rapidly become crisp; they must be set on a previously heated platter.

For fish in aspic, see section XII, no. 4 and 5.

The livers of freshwater fish (and the milt as well in the case of carp) are considered the best part of the fish; the livers of salt-water fish taste strongly of fish oil and are therefore quite unpalatable.

The Usual Months When Fish Are in Season:

Salmon (spawning period November–December) are enjoyable in any month, but are at their best in May.

Eels (spawning period unknown) are usable throughout the year; they are fattest from October to April.

Pickerel (spawning period March and April) remain lean until July; they are best from September through January.

Bass (spawning period March–April) are best from September through January.

Pike have a spawning period and season like bass.

Carp (spawning period April–May) are eaten throughout the year except during their spawning period, but they are best from October to the end of March.

Shad (spawning period end of April through May) are saltwater fish that ascend rivers only during their spawning period in order to spawn. During this period of exhaustion, they are caught and brought to market by the hundreds, but they are subject to rapid spoilage and are then highly detrimental to health. Dried and smoked, shad are similar to salmon.

Trout (spawning period November–December) are best from May through August.

Crab are best from May to the end of August.

Translated by David Green.

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