The Ghost of the Daurade

a fishy haunting

(not pictured: daurade)

Here at the HQ of the Simple Foods for Simple Dudes movement (note: not a real thing), there’s a ghost that visits me, often, and tells me to get a hold of myself. The ghost reminds me that sometimes there are two voices in my head, duking it out. The ghost further informs me, most emphatically, that I usually know which voice I should be listening to, whether I care to admit it or not.

Most of what you are about to read is true. (I’ve added some fun details which don’t really have anything to do with the point, just because I’m colorful.)

It was a beautiful, clear day in late-late summer, and the sun was just beginning to silhouette the taller buildings to my west, as I walked in Chinatown. There was a spring in my step, but not any old spring. It was a certain, special kind of spring, one that could only be put there by a specific confluence of various bits of excitement. First, I was going to cook dinner with my friend V., a friend-in-food and a friend-in-life, a co-spirit. Second, we were going to cook whole branzino ( / European sea bass), stuffed with lemon and fresh herbs, broiled to perfection and paired with a bright, young verdejo, and probably potatoes cooked in some kind of very hot animal fat. It. Was. ON.

I strolled through several different fish markets around Grand Street, as is my habit when fish-shopping in Chinatown, looking for the best available whatever-it-is-I’m-hunting. It’s a kind of luxury unique to a city like NYC: dozens of outlets for whatever it is you happen to be trying to buy at any given time. On this day, all the shops I visited had branzino. This particular fish at first one was not looking too good, so it was an easy pass. I will admit I don’t remember the next couple, so obviously at the very least they were unmemorable.

Finally, I came to the last market I could check, which happened to be the one that I most consistently found to be the best, with the broadest and freshest variety of recently dead sea creatures. They had branzini, alright, and… there they were. They were not great. They weren’t awful, but the eyes weren’t clear. They smelled fine, kind of neutral, but the gills were a little dark and a little bit sticky. Alas, I was out of options — this shop definitely had the best branzino on the strip. Resigned to my fate, I set out to select a couple of the better looking fish and resolved to make the best of it. Herbs, butter, citrus, salt… I could fix this. I could still have my perfect evening.

SPOILER ALERT: Here’s where things began to go horribly, horribly wrong.

Next to the branzino was a shimmering pile of daurade ( / dorade / European sea bream / etc.). Their mirror shine was almost audible, pulling my gaze and my brain toward them like a distracted albatross, even as I continued to browse the C-plus branzino. The stunning appearance of this new pile of fish could only have been a providential alignment of very recent arrival to the shop and some well thought-out store lighting. I finally relented and started inspecting the daurade more closely.

These fish were clearly just hauled in. The gills, bright red and clean. The scales, smooth and slick and to no extent slimy. The smell briny and mineral and crisp: the sea. The eyes crystalline. This was gorgeous fish. My chest fell, I wanted to get this fish so badly but… well, we were having branzino for dinner, so that’s what I needed to get.

I found the two most respectable-looking branzini in the bunch. These were B-minus fish; they might even have been a solid B if that darn daurade hadn’t come along and thrown off the grading curve. I asked for some bags of ice alongside the fish, and carried them down into the subway for the hour-long ride to their final resting place.

Later, finally at the table, something was missing from these branzini. I’d made them before, and they’d come out better. Here’s something not terribly surprising: their flavor was muddy — not off, just not the kind of flavor that’d make you think this was a fish to come back to. They also didn’t perform as well in cooking — the skins stuck to the pan, the fish didn’t hold up well. Part of the joy of broiling a branzino whole is how gorgeous it looks on the table. I guess I’ve learned a thing or two since then, because it seems pretty obvious to me now — like, hammer-on-the-head obvious. Why didn’t I just get the daurade? The preparation would not have needed to change a bit. It was a less-familiar fish to me but it has a similar character to branzino — mild, fairly firm, white flesh. This would not have been a huge leap. What was the real problem, then? My heart was set on branzino.

From the moment of that realization — almost seated at the table with us — the Ghost of the Daurade began to haunt me. At first, the daurade just menaced me like a ghost does, balefully reminding me I’d failed to eat it and experience its succulence. I even went back to the same market the next day: the non-phantasm daurade were nowhere to be seen, undoubtedly having found their way to the bellies of much sharper shoppers.

One day, not long after, the daurade learned to change shape, no longer a normal specter but now an obake (お化け). It transformed into a perfect quart of fresh-picked plums I’d left aside in favor of some off-season cherries. It was an overlooked bunch of ramps I decided I wanted in my life two weeks too late. It showed up as a bag of dry little lemons, when I could have as easily used the neighboring juicy limes.

The thing this ghost DID teach me was that with certain things you have to let the market decide for you. Fish is a great place to start when it comes to letting the market dictate. It doesn’t matter if it’s an expensive grocery or a cheap one, a Chinatown fish market or a stand by the docks. Buy what looks, feels, smells — and WILL taste — best. The same should be said for vegetables, and, especially, fruit. And about seven million other foods.

These days, thankfully, the ghost haunts me less often. When I see it now, it’s often as a guardian angel, watching over me, amplifying the other voice in my head, the one that’s sometimes not as strong as my ambition or desire. The right voice. I know this ghost is cranky, though. It’s ready to haunt me again, if I get too headstrong. Is it odd that that’s reassuring?

IRONIC EPILOGUE: In testing this recipe, I thought I’d finally get some daurade. I went to my markets. The daurade was… telling me to get branzino. I listened this time.

Recipe #4: Broiled Whole Branzino

Ingredients (per person):

  • 1 small whole branzino, approximately 1 to 1 1/4 lb, scaled and cleaned
  • 3 slices lemon
  • 4 slices garlic
  • 2 sprigs thyme, 1 sprig tarragon, 1/2 sprig rosemary — or whatever herbs you like
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt & pepper

Instructions:

  1. Remove your fish from refrigeration about 30 minutes before broiling. Rinse as needed, and pat dry.
  2. Stuff the cavity of each fish with the lemon, garlic, and herbs.
  3. Coat the outside of each fish with olive oil, and apply salt and pepper liberally.
  4. Prepare your broiler: I like to make a small tray of doubled foil and place it on my broiler pan, rather than wrapping the entire thing. Whichever method you prefer, oil the foil generously. Preheat the broiler — you can keep the pan out.
  5. Place fish on the oiled foil and place under the broiler, gently flipping once just past halfway through. See notes below on timing.
  6. If small enough, serve directly on a plate; otherwise carve and plate individual servings.

NOTES:

  • Broiling fish — working with fish in general — takes some practice but as long as you don’t overcook it, everything else is surmountable.
  • Substitute any other similarly sized white-fleshed fish, if it looks fresher and brighter.
  • The length of time it takes to broil will depend on a few things, especially: A) How cold is your fish? B) How thick is your fish, and C) How far is your pan (and ultimately your fish) from the heat? Generally speaking, if your pan is on the highest level (I have mine jury rigged with balls of foil to be even higher), and your fish is just about 1 inch thick at its thickest, you can expect 5 or 6 minutes for the first side and 4 or 5 on the second side. Err on the side of undercooking, always. The skin should be crisped and the flesh firmer.
  • Testing for doneness — insert a small fork into the back, horizontally, near the dorsal fin. Perfectly cooked fish should easily come away from the spine if you lift it gently.
  • Allow to rest for a few minutes before carving and / or serving.

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