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Fillet a Fish

Martha Stewart Living Television

In 1998, Eric Ripert, executive chef and co-owner of the celebrated New York City restaurant Le Bernardin, and his sister Maguy Le Coze published the "Le Bernardin Cookbook: Four-Star Simplicity." The book is organized by cooking techniques and includes numerous recipes for appetizers, desserts, and, of course, the fish dishes Le Bernardin is renowned for. Below are Eric's methods for filleting both a round fish, such as sea bass or snapper, and a flat fish, such as flounder or Dover sole.

Fillet Round Fish How-To
Two fillets are cut from most round fish, one from each side of the backbone. In the United States, whole fish are usually scaled and gutted before they're sold, but if they haven't been cleaned, be careful to keep the intestines separated from the fillets.

1. Remove any excess scales near the head of the fish. Using kitchen shears, trim all the fins from the fish over a medium-size bowl, being sure to remove the dorsal fin. On a cutting board, lay the fish on its side with the head to the left and the tail closest to you. If you are left-handed, the head of the fish will face the right. Place your hand flat on the fish in order to secure it on the cutting board. Using a nonflexible fillet knife, cut around the base of the head, following the shape of the head and pressing the blade of the knife against the bones.

2. Holding the knife horizontally at an angle, slit the skin from head to tail along one side of the backbone. Holding the knife flat and keeping the blade in contact with the bones, slice the flesh from head to tail in a continuous motion down toward the belly of the fish, being careful not to pierce the intestines. Slide the knife through the flesh where the tail meets the body.

3. Separate the fillet from the remainder of fish where the fillet meets the head. You will have to cut through bones here, but again, use the backbone as your guide. Do this very slowly, as you do not want to cut into the intestines.

4. Flip the fish over, and repeat the process with the other fillet, beginning this time with the tail end and working your way up to the head following the bones along the spine. Once you near the belly, reverse the knife motion, and work head to tail, repeating the process performed on the first fillet.

5. On a flat surface with both fillets flesh side up, feel the fillets for bones, especially in the area that had been closest to the intestines. Using needle-nose pliers or small tweezers, remove all of the small bones left in the fillet. Once all the bones are removed, rinse the fillets under cold running water.

6. Stack the fillets as a set with the skins facing out, one on top of the other.

Fillet Flat Fish How-To
1. Using kitchen shears over a medium bowl, trim the fish of all its fins on the top and bottom. Set the fish on a cutting board belly-side down (the lighter side), with the head to the left if you are right-handed and to the right if you are left-handed. With a sharp knife, loosen the skin near the tail by scraping the skin toward the head. Grasp the tail firmly with a towel, and pull the skin up sharply, to strip it away. The more difficult it is to strip the skin from the flesh, the fresher the fish. Repeat process with the bottom skin.

2. Turn the fish so the head is closest to you. Trace a line with a flexible fillet knife down the center of the fish following the natural separation of the two fillets. Beginning with the top fillet and, using the backbone as your guide, hold the knife at an angle and allow the blade to bend as you slice under the flesh and away from the bone to remove the first of four fillets from the fish. Cut the fillet away from the head.

3. Repeat this process with the second, third, and fourth fillets, being careful not to cut into the intestines.

4. Cut away any bones that line the edge of the fillet.

5. Stack the fillets in sets so they appear as two whole fillets.

Learn more essential cooking techniques in Eric Ripert's "Le Bernardin Cookbook: Four-Star Simplicity."  

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