The other week, I got a whole porgy from Blue Moon Fish at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket. The fish was smallish, about 3 pounds, certainly smaller than a lot of the other whole fish they had, and more manageable for a single dinner.
The man in the photo above is Alex, one half of Blue Moon Fish and Manhattan native, who has been fishing since 1977 and selling at the Greenmarkets since 1988. He and his wife, Stephanie, have been selling almost their entire catch through the Greenmarkets in the early 1990’s.
They sell all kinds of fish, year-round except for a few months off in winter, at the Union Square, Washington, Tribeca and Grand Army Plaza farmers’ markets. And their fish is wonderful, and ridiculously fresh. I’ve had their mussels, clams, oysters, swordfish, scallops, skate, tuna, and now this porgy, my first venture into whole fish, and they’ve always been impeccably fresh and delicious. I’ve never seen fresher fish that wasn’t still alive. Moreover, the fish sellers are always happy to suggest a preparation for that particular fish, or advice and instructions.
The fish just look surprised, not dead. Look how clear their eyes are, and how shiny their scales are.
I bought the whole porgy, and I was really excited about it. Porgy (aka scup or bream), is on the Monterey Aquarium’s “good alternatives” list, meaning that the population is sustainable and can be safely fished. I’d never cooked a whole fish on my own before, and I wanted to reprise a cool recipe I’d tried with my friend Justin, a former poissonier, or fish chef. The recipe, similar to this one, called for stuffing the belly cavity with lemon and thyme, and baking it in shell make out of a salt and water paste. Ideally, the fish would turn out steamed in the shell of salt, which would make it easy to remove the skin and separate the fish into fillets without getting salt all over the flesh. As a bonus, you have the flesh that’s not in the fillets, like the cheek meat, tasty and accessible.
The tricky part was going to be prepping the fish to go into the oven. The fish looked alive, sitting on my cutting board, all shiny and glistening and clear-eyed. I almost thought that it would start flopping around wildly if I touched it. I’d never bought a truly whole fish before, scales and all. But I figured that it couldn’t be too difficult to remove the scales.
Wrong. The fish was spiny, and slippery, and the scales were devilishly hard to get off. Lacking a scaler, I ended up with the fish on a cutting board in the sink, holding the tail with one hand and scraping the scales off with the back of a utility knife with the other. At least I wised up enough to cut off all of the spiny fins with my kitchen shears about about the third time I stabbed myself.
It took at least forty-five minutes, and my the time I was done, scales were everywhere but on the fish. In the sink, on the stove, on my shirt, arms and hair, scattered onto the floor around me. See, the force needed to separate the scale from the skin meant that the scales ricocheted wildly when the broke loose. By the end, I didn’t care if I ate the fish any more. I was tired of it. In comparison, the gutting was easy. I just cut from the ventral fin with the shears, grabbed the organs inside, and pulled them out. Luckily, the preparation was so simple that I decided I might as well go through with it.
It came out amazingly well. This recipe does best with really fresh fish, and the porgy from Blue Moon Fish clearly passed. I flubbed the separation of the fillets from the skeleton, so it didn’t look pretty, but it tasted of clean fish, with a moist flakiness and just enough lemon and thyme. It was so easy to pull out the skeleton and bones, and the skin came right off. I would certainly make it again.
The only catch is that apparently you don’t have to scale the fish. I wish I had noticed that part of the recipe before I tried it!