Making Eye Contact with Dinner
In the days when Bill and I were still conducting our due diligence on each other as boyfriend and girlfriend, we took our first trip together. Our destination? Grand Cayman, a world-renowned destination for scuba divers. Bill was already a diver. I went through the process of getting my certification during that trip.
I will never forget how terrified I was the first time the boat took us out for a true open water dive. Face mask on, tank hanging off my shoulders, regulator in my mouth and Bill standing next to me I was told, “Okay, enter the water.” I wasn’t sure I could do it. I couldn’t see the bottom. I’ve always been anxious about deep water- suspicious that malevolent sea creatures see my dangling legs as an Italian sees salamis hanging above a deli.
Glancing sideways at my boyfriend through my facemask- which conveniently obscured my look of horror- I saw him beaming with pride and excitement. “Go for it babe!”
I was pretty sure I was going to die. I thought it through. ”Oh well, I’d rather die than let this guy see me being a chicken shit.” I meant it. I made my giant stride entry.
As soon as I was in the water, I could see an amazing underwater scene below. The fear was gone. In retrospect, that seemingly small decision has had a disproportionate impact on my life. I actually suspect that Bill would have been hugely turned off if I’d have wimped out on the dive. Rightly so. Our life together wouldn’t work if I was a wimp. We’ve had lots of huge moves and career leaps and other craziness. I’ve thought about that moment on that dive boat more than once, remembering that fear is about anticipation, not reality.
I did two things that scare me yesterday. The first was driving on the right-hand side of the road in a right-side drive van. In all the years we’ve been coming here, I’d never gotten behind the wheel. It scared the crap out of me. However, now that I’ve got four kids, we can’t very well load everyone up in the car to get a refill on sunblock. It was time.
My destination? A stretch of beach near the harbor in Georgetown where I’d heard that local fishermen sell their day’s catch. I’ve never really bought fish from the source like this. I’d never bought them whole. I was incredibly excited, but kind of nervous. Would I be able to find it? I probably wouldn’t know what kind of fish is what. How would I know what to buy? Would I know how to cook what I bought? Would the fishmongers sneer at my obvious ignorance?
Approaching the tents- and almost tripping over a dog sleeping in the shade of a palm tree- I saw the day’s catch laid out on a table. There was a lot of red snapper, a wahoo head, and a few blackfin tuna. An older local man, a British couple and a local chef who sounded like he was South African had already selected their fish. Two men scaled and filleted the fish. I watched in fascination as they removed the bones, filleted them and then removed some bit of bone at one end of the fillet. The local man got into a bit of an argument with one of the fishmongers about properly skinning his snapper so the fishmonger dismissively handed him a knife and said, “You do it your way, mon.” The elderly local man clearly saw this as an opportunity to teach this youngster how things should be done.
As I watched the men discarding the fish bones and heads, I remembered that’s what fish fumet (stock) is made from. I’d never made it, but I’d watched Julia make it. I thought I could do that. As I was contemplating this, I watched one of the fishmongers start bagging the heads and bones for the chef. “Are you using those for fumet?” He confirmed that he was. “If you don’t mind me asking, what do you put into your fumet?” His answer was as I expected, mirepoix, bayleaf and peppercorns.
I wasn’t sure what I was going do with the fumet but I’d always wanted to make it. On the ride home I realized I could poach the fish in the fumet. Wanting something tropical, I opted for scallions, ginger, a chili, cilantro, and a bit of zahtar, an African seasoning blend that I’d brought with me.
The kids were a bit freaked out that I was putting fish heads in their dinner. Penelope was fascinated and wanted to “play with the eyeballs.” When I promised that I wouldn’t make them eat the eyeballs, they calmed down a bit. The fumet smelled amazing as it cooked. It was a clean, fresh fish smell punctuated with bright aromatics. After we came up from the beach, I poured a glass of Alsatian wine and chopped some napa cabbage to sauté. I poached the fish in a deep pan in the fumet. While the fish poached, I quickly made a salsa of cucumber, papaya and cilantro to garnish the fish. I realized as I was moving the first batch of fish to warm in the oven that I should reduce the fumet and use it as a sauce.
It all turned out beautifully, if imperfectly. The fish flavor overwhelmed the aromatics. Shoulda added more aromatics and not reduced it. The papaya I used was a bit unripe, so it wasn’t as sweet and red as I wanted it to be. Oh well. And there will still some little bones in the fish. That freaked the kids out a bit so I gave them permission to eat with their hands, pinching each bite of fish to check for bones before they ate it. They actually really liked the fish and were relieved not to see those eyeballs floating around in the broth.
Haven’t been to the fish market yet today but can’t wait to go and find out what’s for dinner tonight.
Cook with courage.