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Cleaning up for dinner

Okay, the weather's finally cooperating (somewhat), daylight lasts longer, and you should be catching lots of fish. But what do you do with them?

Well, I'd suggest eating a couple. Though a firm supporter of conservation efforts, I also support an angler's right to enjoy the resource with moderation. (The moderation part means there's no sense in taking a legal limit every day just because you can. Release a few today, catch a few more tomorrow.)

Now, the catching part is generally the most fun, as evidenced by the old spousal lamentation, "You caught it, you clean it." Actually, the post-catch phase of dinner-fishing needn't be a bummer. Just bear in mind a few enhancing tips.

With some species, cooking fillets with the skin intact produces a heavy "gamey" taste. For example, decades ago, snook were dubbed "soapfish" and discarded as inedible. Reason being, folks had yet to try skinning their fillets. Today, skinless snook flanks rank among the tastiest. Bluefish and sheepshead also are better skinned.

With many fish, skin or no skin matters little and offers cooking options. For example, grilling is great for thick fillets, but unless you're very careful with heat levels, lighter fillets, such as trout or small mackerel, are easily charred or dried. Answer: Leave the skin intact, lightly grill the meat side, turn skin side down and finish cooking.

The skin acts as a temporary heat moderator, allowing the fillet to cook evenly without charring. When fully cooked, the skin peels off the fillet. (Removing the charred skin leaves a moist, film over the fillet. If you don't like this, simply grill the newly exposed side for about 20 seconds.)

Also contributing to gaminess is the "blood meat" found along the spinal areas of fish such as amberjack and pompano. Anytime you fillet a fish and find a dark-colored strip near the middle of the fillets, remove it. Left intact, the blood meat will mar the entire filet.

For optimal meat quality, immediately ice all keepers. Sorry, soaking them in a bucket of water while you fish won't do. On a hot day, even a full 5-gallon bucket will turn to bath water in an hour. That's a very bad thing for fresh fish.

A very good thing, though, is marinating. All fish cooked as-is will yield a certain level of gaminess. However, a 2-hour, chilled marination will draw out the heavy oils producing the offensive tastes. Most prefer golden Italian salad dressing, often mixed with dark basalmic or red wine vinegar. Orange juice and milk (separately) are viable alternatives.

I considered tossing a few recipes in, but space limitations and the plethora of cookbooks prevailed. Still, I'd be remiss if I didn't share a general technique introduced to me last fall by a fellow wanna-be chef.

Lay fresh fillets _ seasoned to taste _ on a bed of chopped red onions and green peppers spread over a rectangular piece of aluminum foil. Fold the foil inward and crimp atop the fish to form a loose tent, sealed at the ends. Set the package on a medium-heated grill for about 20 minutes, or until steam billows out.

Although you don't get the same smoky flavor of direct contact grilling, you also don't dry out your fillets. Trapped within the foil tent, all the natural juices from the fish and veggies circulate via steam for a constant basting and completely even cooking.

Open slowly so the steam doesn't blast you in the face, and enjoy the gift of the sea.

TIPS ON FILLETING FISH

Use a sharp knife. Sounds obvious, but not just kind of sharp. Efficient filleting requires cut-you-if-you-look-at-it sharpness. Also, keep cuts smooth and continuous. Sawing action results in uneven cutting and wasted meat.

If you're really a glutton for labor, you can slice down to the rib cage, then work the meat off the flank with lots of little slices. Most, though, simply cut through the rib cage and remove the entire side intact. Cutting out the entire rib section doesn't sacrifice enough meat to justify the extra work.

When skinning a fish, leave the last bit of skin attached at the tail, flip the fillet off the fish's side and remove the meat from the skin. Leaving this "handle" in place makes skinning much easier, as you needn't hold the edge of a filet with you fingertips while working a blade in dangerous proximity.

Some fish, like grouper and tuna, have fleshy pockets in their cheeks. It takes a little digging, but nuggets of edible meat are there for the taking. When in doubt, poke around until you find a soft area and start cutting.

After the cutting, thoroughly rinse fillets in fresh _ preferably cold _ water to wash away all blood and internal fluids, which, if left standing, can adversely affect meat quality. Also check for parasites that will appear as discolored spots in the flesh. Most hold to isolated areas, and sacrificing a chunk of meat eliminates the problem.

Finally, watch your fingers. A dead fish can hurt you as bad as a live one if you're not careful. Most obvious is teeth. Rigor mortis often clinches jaws shut, and forcing them open can cause a spring-back that can pin fingers where they don't want to be. Also, sharp gill plates are no less sharp once the fish stops wiggling. Likewise, sharp dorsal spines like the sheepshead's remain a hazard. Clipping off these needles with pliers makes cleaning the fish safer.

Tossing scraps in marina waters is the accepted norm, but you'll usually have plenty of feathered volunteers ready to dispose of your leavings. Toss the scraps to the birds and rinse the cleaning table for the next angler.

A sharp knife cannot be overemphasized as it will allow for more efficient filleting with less wasted meat.

Leaving the skin intact before removing the fillet provides a leverage point and keeps fingers safe.

Removing an entire fillet, then cutting out the rib area is better than trimming the fillet off the rib cage.

A thorough washing is a must with fresh fish. Letting blood and fluids stand on the meat harms the quality.

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