Oh, friends. I might be good at some things—picking the dark chocolate pieces from a pint of Ben & Jerry's mint chocolate chunk comes to mind, as does distracting myself online with archives of the The Blue Hour when I'm on a very tight deadline—but learning to fillet a haddock is not on that list. I tried, really I did, to listen carefully and learn the other day when Alex tried to teach me with his favorite blue handled knife, but it would appear I'm not cut out for whole fish.
It's not that I was freaked out. It would take a lot more than a whole haddock staring up at me from a cutting board to give me cold feet. It was more of a handling and anatomy-understanding inability sort of thing. We decided to do this as a soon-to-be-married send off radio piece, and also, it seemed high time, if we are going through with this whole marriage thing, that I learn how to cut a fish.
When we set up, Alex arranged the haddock so that it's top side was toward me, head to the left, tail to the right. He told me how to cut around the gill plate, to stick the knife in and feel around for the bones, and then to cut a half semi-circle sort of arch. He helped me stick the knife in on the head side, angle it flat, and cut down the ribs, along the backbone, to the tail. He told me to pull up gently on the fillet and run my knife over the backbone, next, and then to angle the knife down and free the meat on the other side. All this made sense.
What did not make sense was the way the knife moved in my hand, the way it sawed instead of slid, and most importantly, how on earth a person is supposed to keep a gentle yet firm hold strong enough to keep down a wet, slippery fish. I mangled the head loin when the knife slipped, and then on the belly side, I ran into a line of bones sticking up from the cutting board, perpendicular to the backbone (also known as the nape), and called it quits. I did ask to try again on the other side, but Alex was not willing to sacrifice quite that much line caught, $10.99-a-pound fish. That's my haddock down there, looking like a tattered, disastrous wreck.
Here's his, sitting all neat and pretty, ready for it's Food + Wine cover shot.
At any rate, the most interesting thing I learned from the whole debacle is that it is very, very important, if you're going to try and learn to cut fish, to first study the structure of the bones. Alex told me at the end, after I'd messed the fillet up, that the key to freeing the fillet is to understand the anatomy of the fish. If you know where the bones are, you know where not to cut, and then you can cut along the extreme borders of the meat without ruining all that nice interior flesh. After much online searching, I was very pleased to find this excellent drawing of a haddock skeleton. Although it's still a little difficult to see where the nape bones are (covered up by the pectoral fin? overlapping with the ribs?) it certainly clears the rest up quite a bit.
I was planning, before we did the lesson, on telling you step-by-step how to cut your own whole haddock, but given how well that went, I think it might be best if you take your cues over here. You'll notice that when the guy in the video does the fillet, he never tries to cut around the nape bones. He cuts down the backbone on the belly side from the head to the tail, but not all the way to the bottom side, just a few inches in. Then, starting at the head side, instead of trying to cut around the nape bones that are sticking up, he just tugs the fillet toward the tail a little bit, until the meat comes free from the perpendicular bones. Then he pushes the knife all the way through to the bottom of the belly, and cuts along the rib bones to the tail. I have a feeling that Alex would tell me this is not top-notch technique, but for a beginner, it seems like a good trick to try.
Luckily, despite my complete and utter lack of technique, the marriage is still on. Alex can be quite generous sometimes, and it appears that he is willing to commit to a lifetime of cutting fish. I'll see you when we get back, in exactly one month and a day.