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A Lifelong Vegetarian Cooks Fish for the First Time & Lives to Tell the Tale

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Is fish food? 

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The first time I ate fish, I was not in my right mind.

I had been a vegetarian for sixteen years, with no memory of having eaten fish in any form (except the one time I ate krill that I mistook for tempeh—an unpleasant surprise). 

But it was the end of my senior year of college, I was in Miami with my closet friends, and we had a table at a hip, fish-famous Japanese restaurant where I expected to bump elbows with J. Lo. 

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This was not reality. This was a lawless land. When the yellowtail sashimi, the black cod with miso, and the shrimp tempura I just had to try arrived, I readied my chopsticks (somewhat clumsily) and went for it.

Was that a spotlight shining on my face as I volleyed that first piece of fish back and forth in my mouth, figuring out how hard I had to chew (did I have to chew? should I be chewing?)? Was that a slow clap I heard as I tried to contort my mouth in the right way, as if I were pronouncing "hors d’oeuvres" for the first time? 

But when I paused to let the taste dissolve into my mouth, I was surprised by the subtlety. The battered shrimp was chewy, but tasted mostly like the creamy sauce that enrobed it; the sashimi, on the other hand, was delicate and savory—foreign but not alarmingly so. The strangest part was the texture: melty and soft with just the slightest give and chew, like a perfectly firm yet soft mattress. 

That was the first time. And only the beginning. 

A couple months later, I went on a fish-eating bender during a similarly out-of-body trip to Japan. Motivated by F.O.M.O., I knelt down for omakase meals, dropping pieces of fish into my mouth and trying to act like it was totally normal. I was scared and confused by the new flavors and textures, and feeling guilty for how much I enjoyed a world I knew existed but had always snubbed (and the fishiest fishes—the red snapper, the trout, the salmon—were my favorites).

Now that I knew how good fish tasted, could I—would I—ever go back? 

I did.

Once I arrived back in the U.S. and started cooking on my own again, I stayed away from fish, equally overwhelmed by the prospects of making a sustainable choice and the price tag. I only dabbled in seafood when a don't-miss opportunity presented itself—a lobster roll on Cape Cod, some gravlax at Prune.

But inspired by the seafood-eating, risk-taking editors at Food52, I finally set out to make a fish dinner myself:

  • Halibut with Basil, Garlic, and Tomatoes, by virtue of its tiny ingredient list and quick set of instructions, would be my first recipe.

  • I turned to Seafood Watch to research what type of fish to get (wild or farmed? Atlantic or Pacific?), scrawling down notes to bring with me to the store.
Halibut beauty shot

  • But when I stopped by Citarella (they claim to be "the seafood authority") on my way home from work for the "4 halibut fillets," I froze up: There was only one type of halibut, and I also had no idea how much to buy. How much is "one fillet"? How much does one person eat? These pieces of halibut were huge and there would only be two of us eating. I ended up buying one 10-ounce piece of fish and reasoning we would cut it later.
Searing the halibut on both sides
 
  • The first step in the recipe, after seasoning the fish, was to sear each side in olive oil over medium-high heat until "golden color forms." I either didn't use enough olive oil or pat the fish dry or make sure the pan was hot enough, but the fish skin stuck to the pan when I attempted to flip. Figuring that no golden color would form, I removed the fish after about 1 minute on each side. 
There was no golden color, but the top and bottom layer were cooked

  • I transferred the fish to a plate and got to cooking the rest of the dish: sautéed tomatoes cooked with garlic, white wine, and lemon juice. Then, I returned the fish to the pan, added the basil, and covered the fillet. 

  

  • The instructions said to "let cook until fish is cooked through," but again, I had no idea what that meant. As a fish rookie, I was realizing just how much foundational knowledge this type of recipe assumes. How long would the halibut take to cook? What would happen if I undercooked? What would happen if I overcooked? What should I look for? I was starting to panic, so I put my sous chef on the job. 
My sous chef diligently prodding the fish to check for doneness

  • I was worried extremely paranoid about overcooking the fish, so we checked on it frequently, poking its insides with a fork. I thought it would take about 5 minutes, but it actually was more like 15 before the fish was "cooked through," which my sous chef told me meant the fillet was white all the way into the center.
  
By the time the fish was ready, we were eating dinner in the near-dark

  • Finally, it was time to eat. The fish was fine, but not very flavorful (I should have added way more salt to season) and it was missing a golden sear. Better luck next time!

Since cooking fish for the first time, I've gotten more adventurous in my pursuits: Kristen coached me through my first sautéed shrimp experience, and I also made garlic shrimp with white beans from Bon Appétit. I cooked Poached Tuna with Warm Summer Squash, Corn, and Potato Salad for my parents, baked salmon with salsa verde in my apartment in New York, and served Sam Sifton's fish tacos on the Fourth of July.

So do I consider myself a pescetarian? Has my life been changed forever? I'm not sure about that yet, but I do know that the possibilities for what to cook and eat feel much larger than ever before. I'm learning a new language, but my native tongue still feels a lot more comfortable. 

What suggestions do you have for someone eating and cooking fish for the first time?