Grilled Whole Porgies
One of my favorite scenes in the movie Chinatown, indeed of any movie, is the one where Jack Nicholson has lunch with John Huston. The scene is ripe with noir dialogue, including the line, delivered by Huston when a whole fish is served for lunch, “I believe it should be served with the head on.” To which Nicholson replies, “As long as you don’t serve chicken that way.” If you live near the sea you have an abundant choice of whole fish, and can do with it as you please: roast it whole, with the head on (as most people, not just sociopathic billionaires, believe it should be served), or filet it and use the bones and head for stock. What a joy it is to buy a fresh whole fish from a fisherman on a dock in Maine, or rural New Zealand, or from a fish store in the Hamptons. Another, more urban joy, is heading down to Mott Street in New York and lining up before a small fish store with whole fish laid out on the ice, dripping slowly on the sidewalk, the fishmonger hosing down scales and blood, people talking, poking, calling their orders out in Cantonese. They pack a whole sea bass with a piece of ginger and a couple of scallions.
Living in Ithaca is living far from the sea. We do have a truck from Massachusetts that sells fresher fish, but they are always fileted. So I buy my fish at Wegman’s, a fancy supermarket. For several years now, I suppose in response to our fairly large Asian population, they have had whole fish. They started to get whole fish when the price of fish rocketed into the stratosphere. Much as I love it I don’t usually buy it. It’s not because whole fish are too much work, rather, it’s the price, which at 8-12 bucks a pound seems reasonable, until you factor in the loss of 1/3 the weight to head, guts, and bones. But last Saturday I could not resist the glistening, silver white porgies. They had been delivered that morning. Porgies are a wonderful fish. They are, unfortunately, notoriously bony. But they are compact, sweet little guys. Growing up they were the faire of poor people. I decided to grill the porgies and serve them with the head on. I also decided to prepare them in a Southeast Asian style, with salt, turmeric and lime.
I served this with bean threads, a cucumber, pepper, and onion salad and a spicy dip sauce.
Prepare these dishes in advance:
Soak one or 2 packages of bean threads in hot water for 5-10 minutes, until soft. Drain.
Slice whole cucumbers and sprinkle with salt. Set aside for up- to an hour and drain. Add chopped sweet pepper, a minced clove of juicy new garlic, sliced sweet onion and dress with sesame oil (a little) sunflower oil and equal amounts of lime juice and fish sauce. Add chopped mint and cilantro and toss.
Chop the flesh of ¼ lime. Add juice of half a lime. Add a couple of tablespoons of fish sauce. Then add a minced clove of that juicy fresh garlic and minced Thai peppers to taste.
4 whole porgies, gutted and scaled
2 T salt
1 T turmeric
½ cup vegetable oil
Make two diagonal slashed just to the bone on each side of the porgies. Combine salt and turmeric. Rub it into the slashes, the cavity and all over the body, head and tail. Then pour oil on them and rub the oil all over the fish. Heat a grill very hot and when it’s hot, scrub it down until it is clean.
Grill the fish for about 5 minutes a side until just done. Brush oil on the fish before turning, carefully, with a big, metal spatula. It is a little tricky, but if the grill is hot and clean, and the fish is well oiled, and you brush more oil on before turning, you should be able to take it off without losing the best part, the crispy, salty earthy skin, enlivened with a spritz of lime.
Remove the fish from the bone and serve. The fish will take some work; be patient, it repays your work in incalculable multiples of salty, sour, sweet joy. Perfect for a summer evening, and perfect with a glass of ice cold rose wine or Riesling.