LAST WEEK, I ordered sea bass at a cafe in New York's Greenwich Village and the waitress felt compelled to warn me that the fish was served with its head on.
Some diners, she said, are alarmed to see a fish head. I told her not to worry. When I eat a whole fish, I like to look it in the eye. It seems only sporting. I get to gaze at my dinner, and it gets to look back at me. Soon the bass arrived. We made eye contact. Then I enjoyed a magnificent meal.
The other day, I learned another good reason for a fish to keep its head on: namely, that the look in the fish's eye offers a clue about whether the fish is properly cooked.
If the eye is translucent the fish may be under-cooked. If it is opaque, the fish could be perfectly cooked. And if the eye is sunken, chances are good the fish is overcooked.
I found these clues in "Anne Willan's Cook it Right" (1997, Reader's Digest, $29.95). Willan is an accomplished cook and cookbook author. In this book, Willan draws on her years of experience and, using both text and photographs, answers basic culinary questions.
One those questions is how do you tell when a whole fish is done. The answer, Willan's book says, is that you check the time, the texture and the eyeballs.
First you consider cooking time. As a guide for cooking time you use a ruler to measure the fish at its thickest part, the book says. You allow 10 minutes cooking time for every inch of fish flesh.
As for texture, the book advises that you probe the thickest part of the cooked fish with knife or fork. If the flesh is resistant and clings to bone, it is under-cooked. If the flesh nearest the bone flakes easily, it is perfectly cooked. And if the flesh is dry and falls from the bone, then it is overcooked.
As for the eyes, translucent is bad but fixable, opaque is good, and sunken is a signal to start making sauce to save the dish, the book says.
After reading this, I got my hands on a couple of dictionaries. I wanted to be sure what a translucent fish eye was. The first dictionary, a little paperback I keep on my desk, told me translucent means "transmitting light but causing sufficient diffusion to eliminate perception of distinct images." Say what? I couldn't imagine standing over my backyard barbecue grill, looking at a sizzling rockfish and asking myself, "Is that fish eye causing sufficient diffusion?"
I went to a second dictionary, a big, important-looking one that sits, on a throne, outside the boss' office. Like a good boss, this dictionary gave me a variety of answers to my query, and eventually I found one I could live with. This dictionary said a translucent fish eye was a "clear," or "transparent" fish eye.
I took this to mean that if a fish I am cooking has that "I-can-conquer-the-world" look in its eye - that some recent graduates of business school seem to have - it is a sign that the fish is not ready to appear in public. It needs more time, more heat.
While paging through the big dictionary, I also looked up "opaque." The big dictionary told me that an opaque fish eye was one that was dense, stupid-looking. I took this to mean that the look of the eye of a perfectly cooked fish is similar to the distant look you see in the eyes of guys who have spent too much time in the neighborhood tavern, sampling the pilsner.
As for the sunken eye, it is a sign that the fish has spent too much time on the fire. A pleasing feature of Willan's book is that it has suggestions for saving overcooked foods. For instance, to revive a dry fish, the book recommends serving it with a butter sauce, or a vinaigrette dressing.
I took heart from the news that the next time a fish I am cooking gets that "sunken-eye" look, supper is not necessarily lost. I can cover up the dry fish flesh with a sauce, and I can cover up its sunken eye with a cherry tomato.
Pub Date: 3/25/98