Practice, confidence key to breaking down a fish
Along with sharp knives and good technique, a key to breaking down a fish is confidence.
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Philosophers and life coaches could have a field day with fish cutting. This is because, along with sharp knives and good technique, a key to breaking down a fish is confidence. I can just hear Mr. Miyagi now: “Slice with commitment, Daniel-san. Become one with the blade.”
I stepped tentatively into the fish-cutting arena guided by the patient, capable Ashley Watts, owner and operator of Local I‘a, which purchases fish from Oahu small-boat fishermen and sells them direct to restaurants and retail customers.
Watts reaches the public via farmers markets and through a subscription program called a CSF, or community-supported fishery. Part of the deal when purchasing fish from Local I‘a is traceability; on its website, each fish can be traced to the fisherman who caught it. Watts provides bios on each fisherman, general information on the catch and recipes. And, most important, the fish is at the height of freshness, for sale within a week of being caught.
LOCAL I‘A CLASSESAll classes run 3 to 4:30 p.m. at the kitchen behind Kaimuki Superette, 3458 Waialae Ave.
>> Fish processing: Sept. 15 and Oct. 27, $35 to $40
>> Fish cookery: Sept. 1, 22 and Oct. 20, $45 to $55
Before taking me to the cutting board, Watts arranged for us to watch a master fish cutter at work. Talk about mastery of a craft. Self-taught Rodel Agonoy, who has been breaking down fish for 13 years, tackled a 110-pound yellowfin ahi caught by Kekoa Seward of Hawaii Kai, separating the meat from the spine and quartering it into giant fillets in about 3-1/2 minutes.
Agonoy then moved on to cut a small-potatoes aku of about 20 pounds. The photographer and videographer who accompanied me had to ask Agonoy to slow down so they could capture his work, but even at a slower pace, it took him just 1 minute to complete the task.
The final proof of his skill were the fish skeletons, tails attached to spines with such thin layers of meat left attached that they were almost translucent — no waste. Besides Agonoy’s obvious skill and experience, “he cuts with confidence,” said Watts.
Then it was my turn, coached by Watts. We each had our own 22-pound aku, and she demonstrated a step in the process, then handed over the knife to me so I could attempt to do the same. The task required two knives: one with a narrow, thin, flexible blade (about 1/4- to 1/2-inch wide) for making initial cuts along the spine and navigating bones (Watts uses a Kershaw blade, which is inexpensive at under $40) and a bigger knife with a thicker, wider blade (about 1-1/2 inches) to cut through areas with plates and tough skin, and to remove the fillets of flesh from the spine.
Though each type of fish has its own particulars as to anatomy, there is a general process: Remove the head and innards (this takes strength — you’ll need to snap bones to detach the head), remove the belly, slice the fish along the spine to aid in separating the flesh from the bones, then slice off fillets from both sides.
As to the element of confidence, the truth of the matter is that like anything else, confidence alone can lead you astray. As I was attempting to fillet, I could not feel the bones of the spine under my blade, which should have guided my cutting. Between navigating technique, holding the slippery fish still and trying to recall information swimming in my brain, I failed to simply look down at my knife (which was nowhere near the spine, as it turned out, nor positioned horizontally to deliver a straight cut).
Instead, overwhelmed, I pretended at confidence and committed to my cut. By the time I had the presence of mind to examine exactly where I was cutting, I discovered to my horror that I was cutting closer to the skin than the spine — so much waste!
Watts came to the rescue, slicing off the slabs of meat I missed, which she turned into poke and filling for spring rolls. I got a share and cooked it my favorite way: salted and peppered, dusted lightly in flour and quickly pan-fried.
My point here is that breaking down a fish takes practice. Watts, who teaches how-to classes, said improving skill is about developing muscle memory as well as technique. In fact, participants often repeat her class, making noticeable improvements by the third try.
Other random tips: Wear dark or old clothing in case of blood splatter, and be careful not to puncture the gall bladder, a small, greenish sac located in the rear stomach area, which contains filtered toxins that are bitter.
Is there a cooking technique you’d like explained? Email food editor Joleen Oshiro, email@example.com. Nutritional analysis by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.