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How to scale, gut and fillet fish, fresh from the sea
First up, find a decent fishmonger. If he’s good, he’ll prepare the fish for you, advise you how to cook it and, most importantly, have access to some of the freshest fish around. If you live at the coast, make a meal of it by heading down to the harbour and making your choice straight off the fishing boat. The general rule when buying fish is that it should smell of the sea. If there’s a whiff of low tide, shop somewhere else. The fish’s eyes should be clear and glassy, the flesh firm and the gills should be bright red (not dark and murky).
You’ve landed a beauty. Now what? Knowing how to fillet fish (expertly) is an invaluable skill that ranks up there with being able to shuck an oyster and mix a killer margarita. Not only is it more economical than buying prepared fish, you also get to make a rocking stock from the leftover bits.
Scale the fish by holding it by the tail and dragging the back of a knife from tail to head. Scales will fly all over the place, so if you’re fastidious about your kitchen floor, I suggest you do the scaling in a plastic bag or while holding the fish under running water.
Stick a knife in the underside of the fish. Being careful not to damage the guts, cut open from the gills to the fin near the tail. Stick your hand into the cut and remove the guts by pulling them firmly towards the tail. Wash the body cavity and knife.
With the head of the fish facing you, insert your knife into the back at the tail and cut along the backbone towards the head.
Hold the fish by its gills and cut through the underside of the body to the spine. Turn the fish over and repeat, then cut through the spine and remove the head. Keep the head and the skeleton (from step five below) to make stock.
At the tail, insert the knife into the slit down the back right through to the slit on the underside. Using a sawing motion and the skeleton as a guide, cut the fillet loose. Turn the fish over and repeat.
With the fillet skin-side down, hold your knife almost horizontally and cut away the stomach-cavity lining and any rib bones.
If it’s a bony fish, run your fingers over the fillet to feel for any bones. Remove them with a pair of pliers by holding the fillet down, gripping the bones with the pliers and pulling. You may end up leaving more fish on the bone than you would like the first couple of times, but don’t despair. Practice makes perfect for this essential skill.