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Catch A Fish, Butcher It, And Make Some Crudo

Illustration by Sam Woolley.

It’s easy to fall into a summertime pattern of eating tacos and kabobs and barbecue on a three-day rotation, because those are delicious things to eat and they are best eaten in summer. Broadly speaking, this is doing summer right. Enjoy your tacos! Enjoy your kabobs! Enjoy your barbecue, so long as someone else is minding the smoky fire for hours on end while you play whiffle ball and pound shandies!

I submit, though, that the familiar delightfulness of these summer staples is keeping you from experiencing other, far greater summer delicacies. You should take a 24-hour break from cramming your face full of various grilled meats and consider something like, say, crudo. Because variety is good, yes, but also, and more importantly, because crudo is miraculously delicious and good to eat, and is summery as a mofo, and you may even come away from this experience with a new hobby. A summertime hobby!


The reason for this is simple enough: crudo is an Italian word that means “raw,” and, for today’s purposes, refers to raw fish, and, like all great and/or palatable raw fish preparations, requires a level of freshness one does not generally associate with fish bought from the grocery store. And so! In order to have crudo that rises above meh—and hopefully well above oh shit I’m gonna be sick—you might decide now is a good time to take up fishing! And, hey, it’s summer, now is a good time to take up fishing. And, since being good at fishing is at least 50 percent moderating one’s consumption of cold beer, even you can pull it off, when you are not on one of your legendary benders.

Before you start freaking out about tackle boxes and tensile strength and shit, know this: strictly speaking, you will not need to take up fishing in order to make delicious crudo. It would be cool and fun and rewarding, but you will absolutely be able to make delicious crudo anyway. Which, by the way, is what we are going to do. Let’s get to it.

Here’s what you’re gonna need: some good, fresh fish; a sharp knife; some good olive oil; some good sea salt; something acidic. And some ice. That’s really it.

In basic terms, what we’re doing is slicing up some good fish, dressing it, and eating it. And, hey, if, in the breezy spirit of summer, you simply do that—buy some fish, cut it into hunks, put it on a plate, dress it with olive oil, salt, and lemon juice, then cram it into your face—you will have successfully eaten food, and it will probably sustain you. But! It will not be especially delicious. Crucially, it will also not justify the thousands of words of this internet food column, and that is just unacceptable.


Crudo has in common with sashimi at least one important detail (thankfully, this detail is not world-class knife skills): its deliciousness is directly and profoundly determined by its freshness. The range here can be genuinely disorienting—a piece of fish that would be fine for baking might make for a sashimi experience that is close to horrifying. We’ve probably all done the thing where we ordered hamachi at the neighborhood sushi joint, and it came out looking a little wan but not alarmingly so, and you put it in your mouth, and, oh God, what the fuck, get this out of my face immediately. And the thing is, the fish was probably fine! A little salt, a little seasoning, a little heat, a soft tortilla, some shredded cabbage and a blob of guacamole, and voila, you’ve got yourself a totally passable fish taco. In fact, I’m not convinced fish tacos weren’t initially just a thing to do with fish that might otherwise summon the gorge if it was, say, steamed or shocked or, God help us, served raw.

Fish and seafood have this funny reputation, relative to other animal proteins, where the very idea of eating less-than-fresh seafood is terrifying, and we’re encouraged to be extra vigilant about the freshness of fish and seafood. Probably this has to do with some persistent low-level anxiety about the unknown horrors of the murky deep, and the possibility that some truly alien super-amoeba is hiding in the past-ripe flesh of the just-this-side-of-repulsive sea creature you’re about to consume. A bite of the wrong piece of seafood, and friggin’ Cthulhu will come rocketing out of your butt mere hours later, leaving you completely dead on the commode. Tough break!


But, nah, the real concern, here, is that, like fresh tomatoes, fresh fish is different enough from and better enough than thawed or preserved fish that it’s almost like eating a completely different thing. The opposite of the Neighborhood Sushi Joint Disaster is the Destination Sushi Spot Epiphany, where a piece of perfectly fresh, top-quality hamachi blows your hair back like the guy in the old Maxell commercial. Crudo is the same way—super-fresh crudo is a real goddamn treat, and you will remember it for a long time.

But how to get our hands on fish that is fresh enough that you would feel good just slicing off a hunk and eating it? Well, hmmm. You’ve got a couple options, here: you can catch some fish; you can order some fish; you can get real friendly with a fishmonger; you can find a local fresh seafood market, wake up in the wee hours, hie yourself down to this local fresh seafood market at the crack of dawn, and elbow your way through restaurant buyers in order to get your hands on the very best stuff, before it is all gone and the rubes are left to buy the dregs.


Acquiring your fish:

The best, most fun, most summery option to getting some fish for your crudo is gonna be catching your own stuff. You don’t have to be goddamn Ernest Hemingway fishing the Irati to make this happen—our boy Samuel Wadhams has the how-to for every step of the process, from gearing up to finding a spot, on down to killing the poor damn fish. Fishing is delightful, we are now in the heart of summer, and crudo that you make from fish you just now yanked out of a body of water will be the most delicious seafood you will ever eat. Of course, fishing is also a whole big production, and the best fish for this preparation will come from the ocean, and personally killing a living thing is very much not for everyone. My wife is comfortable with it and will gut a recently murdered fish with great glee, but I am a mortal lock to cry actual tears every time a fish is killed in front of me. This may not be your bag, is what I’m saying.


Thankfully, it is now possible to order good, fresh fish and seafood online, because of course it is, what with “disruption” and the emerging technocracy and so forth. These mugs here, for example, tout a diverse selection of different sushi-grade offerings—roe, hamachi, tuna, uni—and the purveyors really seem to know their shit. This is a good option. Not real cheap, but what they are offering ought to be several degrees better than what you’ll get down at Ralph’s.


Or, hey, maybe you’re tight with Ralph (of Ralph’s) and Ralph will be straight with you when you ask him what is actually fresh in his fish display. I dunno, man. I once asked a fishmonger at Harris Teeter what was freshest, and the various looks of terror we silently exchanged over the next several moments brought us both to the brink of a kind of existential dread one should not encounter outside of The Twilight Zone. Proceed at your own risk, if this is your best or only option.

Maybe, though, you happen to live in a place where it is not too burdensome to get to a by-God fish market bright and early. I live about an hour west and north of D.C., and down in D.C. they’ve got a pretty bitchin’ wharf, where gruff men in heavy work gloves will be all too happy to sell you a bushel of number one male crabs for a hefty price, then covertly swap out your bushel with a bucket of pulverized water bugs as soon as you turn your back. If you keep your eyes on them at all times and deploy body language that suggests you’ve killed before and aren’t afraid to go back to jail, it is possible to buy from them very fresh, very high quality fish, especially if you go first thing in the morning. All that’s left, then, is knowing how to pick out very fresh, very high quality fish, because they damn sure won’t guide you in any helpful direction if it means there’s a chance they’ll have to actually part with something worth actual money.


OK. Some quick tips for getting fresh fish: the fish should be firm to the touch; its gills should look clear and healthy and reddish-purple, not grey or sticky or dry (reach your fingers into the gill slit and pull it open, you big baby—this beats the hell out of eating old-ass fish); there should be no fishy smell—if anything, the fish should have a smell like ocean water; the fish’s eyes should be clear and bright, not cloudy or puckered or anything weird and depressing like that.

However you get your fish, once you’ve gotten it, a crucial step is going to be getting it onto some ice and keeping it on ice. For one thing, freshwater fish must be kept on ice, if not frozen, because the freaky super-amoebas that bring devastation to your guts generally don’t live in ocean water, and any time spent in the range of temperatures outside of cooking-hot or near-freezing-cold will only strengthen these Lovecraftian horrors before they are cut loose on your digestive system. (UPDATE: I should make this more explicit: plucking a freshwater fish out of the water and eating it can be extremely dangerous. It’s a great thing to do with fish from salt water! Fully freeze and/or cook freshwater fish before eating.) For another thing, we want the fish—whatever its origin—to change as little as possible from the state it was in the very moment it was pulled from the water, and near-freezing temperatures will slow all processes. Get it on ice, and keep it on ice, and return it to the ice at every passive step along the way, right up until the moment you plate it and dress it and serve it.


Butchering and prepping your fish:

If you ordered the fish online—I am liking this option more and more, guys—or bought it from Ralph, perhaps it is already cut into a tidy hunk or a filet. Cool! If your fish is mostly whole, you are going to need to butcher this thing. No big deal! Truly! The guts should already be gone (go ahead and tell the fishmonger to gut the fish, man), so all you’ve gotta do is filet it. Simple: first, lay the fish down on its side on a cutting board, grab a sharp knife or a sharp pair of scissors or the razor blade you keep tucked in the roof of your mouth, and cut off all those damn fins all over the place—the side fins behind the gills, the dorsal fin, any other random-ass fins. Get ‘em the hell out of your way. This is easy stuff, and will boost your confidence for the marginally less easy stuff to come.


Next, check to see if your fish has scales. You’ll know, because it will feel scaly. HEY-O! If it’s scaly, scrub against the grain of the scales (from back to front) with the non-sharp edge of your trusty chef’s knife, being careful to not cut your arm off in the process. Just scrub and scrape and scrub and scrape and before very long, the scales will be all over your kitchen and not on the fish. Rinse off and dry the fish, and get it back on ice. Also, wipe away the scales on your cutting board, and take a moment to appreciate the volume of scales all over your kitchen and curse the internet food man who talked you into this shit.

Now you are ready to filet this fucker. Lay your fish back on its side on the cutting board, grab your sharpest knife, and make a cut just behind the gill slit, from the top of the fish down to the belly. Cut gently but firmly, down to the bone, then rotate the fish and make a lengthwise cut along the ridge where the dorsal fin used to be, all the way to the tail, on the same side of the fish where you made the perpendicular cut behind the gills. OK, now you’re going to repeat that exact cut a few times, pressing the knife down against the bone of the fish, and cutting deeper each time: make a sharp, clean cut down the length of the first cut, peel back the filet a little, put the knife back in at the head-end of the cut, press down against the bone, and make the cut again, but deeper. In this way, you will be progressively cutting away the filet, leaving as little flesh on the bone as possible. Eventually, you will cut clear through the belly of the fish, and you will have a filet. The trick is to do this carefully and cleanly and in as few cuts as possible, like this chef guy, so that the fish doesn’t wind up shredded and you still have all your arms and fingers and blood at the end. Don’t forget to put your fish filet back on ice! Whenever it is resting and you are not eating it, it should be on ice.


The rest of this is fairly simple, and fun: you’re going to slice off bite-sized pieces of your filet (leaving off the skin), dress them, and serve them. The end product is going to be gorgeous to look at, and holy shit delicious. Here are the rules: you are going to use the best, fruitiest extra virgin olive oil you can reasonably get your hands on; you are going to use the best, most mineral-rich sea salt you can reasonably get your hands on; you are going to use an application of something acidic and good; and, if you want, you are going to garnish with a fresh and bright herb, for maximum oomph.

Making the crudo:

Here is my recommendation: get yourself a black sea bass or striped bass, because they are abundant in the Atlantic and easy to find in the desired range of freshness; slice it thin but not paper-thin; array it artfully around a white plate. Then drizzle it generously with good olive oil, and evenly sprinkle a pinch or two of coarse grey sea salt over it. If you can get your hands on some good, syrupy, by-God balsamico, drizzle modest blobs on your slabs of fish. If balsamico isn’t available but good, fresh tomatoes are, top each slab of fish with a teeny little wedge of tomato and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. If good, fresh tomatoes aren’t available, go straight to the lemon juice and don’t sweat it at all—garnish each slab with a tiny portion of finely chopped chives, or a similarly tiny portion of fresh dill or cilantro or basil or parsley; serve. Or, wait—pour yourself a cool glass of pinot gris or txakoli or whatever white wine you dig, or grab up a cold beer. Now serve!


What the fuck, man, this is just raw fish. OK, sure, but also, hell no, man. I’m not trying to tell you how to eat, here, but do this for me: use a long fork to carefully lift a single slab of dressed crudo up to face-level. Note how its freshness is communicated in its glistening translucence, how its succulence is foreshadowed by its healthy plumpness. Bring it to your nose and inhale: bright citrus, bright herb, bright, fruity olive oil, all riding on the unmistakable aroma of cool sea water. Now, turn the fork towards your face, open your mouth, and eat the fuckin’ thing.

OH, THIS IS SEAFOOD. Yes. Exactly. There are a few seafood experiences that are FULL SEAFOOD: good sushi; good ceviche; uni in any preparation; the absurd decadence of the full calabash experience; and crudo. Holy hell is crudo capital-S Seafood. Transportive, even—best eaten at the ocean, but also capable of bringing the ocean all the way to you, in the comfort of your miserable apartment.


We tend to think of Italian food as being heavy and starchy and slow-cooked, but it turns out we’ve been thinking of New Jersey food the whole time. Not that there’s anything wrong with the bubbling cauldron of tomato gravy, but crudo is the truest expression of Italian cuisine: super fresh, unpretentious, simple, and from the sea. In your mouth, it’s cool and rich without being anywhere close to overpowering, with the perfect dissolving chew of fresh, raw fish, the mild, pleasant unctuousness of good oil, the zing of fresh citrus, and the happy crunch and sudden jolt of coarse salt. Hell yeah, crudo! It happens to make for a doozy of a summertime foodstuff, and a hell of a good reason to take up fishing. And what better time! Get to it, guys. Goditi la vita.


Chris Thompson lives in Virginia, hate-loves and writes about the Wizards, and spends too much of his meager income on meals out. He’s also written forGawker,Vice Sports, and The Classical, and can be found on Twitter@MadBastardsAll. He’ll be doing these every other Saturday; check the Foodspin archive here.

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