I used to be cool.
You know the drill. Lived in the city. Had friends in bands. Hosted epic dinner parties. Had hidden-gem, independently owned choices for everything: fishmonger, bookstore, coffee shop.
Then we moved to the suburbs, and in a mere one week’s time, I acquired jeggings, a station wagon, and a Costco membership.
(You know what? Jeggings are actually super-comfortable. I’m sorry I made fun of them for so long. So much time: wasted.)
The Burger, who harbors no suburban antipathy (and no memories of living in the city, for that matter), loves going to Costco. Looooooves it. Admittedly, she’s the kind of kid who loves everything. I’m going to the mailbox; are you coming with me? Yeah! You wanna walk to the dumpster? Yeah! How about we go to the post office? YEAH! But Costco generates some serious enthusiasm, mostly because The Husband finds empty aisles then does wind sprints and donuts with the cart to keep her occupied. When the novelty of that wears off, she gets to pick out her favorite snacks, the boxes of which totally dwarf her. Look, kid! A four-foot-tall box of Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies!
We usually don’t buy much meat or seafood there, but on our most recent trip, we pushed the cart past the seafood bunker and there it was: a single tray of four whole glistening rainbow trout, scaled and gutted. Crazy — why do they have this? It looks really good.* And why’s there only one package left? Is this seriously flying off the shelves? And how is it so cheap? Fourteen bucks for four whole trout? I picked it up and showed it to The Husband.
“We should buy those,” The Burger said seriously. “What are they called?”
Here’s the thing: The Burger never says anything seriously. She is joyful, she is goofy, and like any other 3.5-year-old, she can occasionally be whiny. But I’ve never heard her say anything in such a firm, calm, serious tone.
“They’re trout,” I replied, taken aback by her tone. “You want these?”
“Yes,” she said solemnly. “We should buy those and cook them tonight. I can help.”
“Yes,” she said. “Put them in the cart, okay?”
“Okay,” I said, and duly added them to the cart, a little weirded out by her gravitas. But what the hell, right? We all like fish. I’d steamed and roasted whole ones before. No bigs. We’d have it tomorrow night. (We’d already bought a rotisserie chicken, and I was planning on making our go-to quick dinner when we got home — a cheater’s enchilada casserole. You pull a rotisserie, toss it with a couple cups of salsa verde, layer tortillas on top, sprinkle with chihuahua cheese and run it under the broiler. So easy you don’t even need a recipe. You’re welcome!)
We rolled through the checkout line. The Burger made a point of telling the cashier we were going to cook trout for dinner. Twice on the way home, she asked, “we’re going to make those fish tonight, right?” I lobbed a distracted we’ll see — the parents’ timeworn I’m not going to actually say no to you right now — into the backseat, the week’s dinner lineup playing out in my mind. Casserole tonight. (Yes. I’m from the Midwest. Even with salsa verde, it’s still called casserole.) Fish tomorrow. Pasta Tuesday. You get the idea.
She asked again when we got home. “Can we please make these tonight? Please?”
The Husband looked at me. “Strike while the iron’s hot,” he said. “We said we were going to teach her to cook, right?”
So I rinsed the belly cavities, sliced some lemons, got out the shallot salt**, lined some baking sheets with foil, and sat on the floor. The Burger helped me pat the fish dry, inside and out, with paper towels, then asked if she could touch the fish for a minute. She moved the fins around; opened and closed the tail, accordion-style; checked inside the mouth; then said, “I’m gonna poke the eyeball.”
“Go nuts,” I told her. “Some people eat the eyeball after it’s cooked.”
“I’m going to do that,” she declared, then rammed her finger into the fish’s eye socket. “It squirted and tickled me!”
Ocular destruction complete, we moved on to rubbing the inside and outside of the fish with salt and olive oil, and stuffing the cavities with lemons. The Burger also shoved a lemon slice into each trout’s mouth. The doorbell rang while we were working; it was one of The Burger’s little pals from the neighborhood.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Making fish for dinner,” I replied, half-hoping this would repel her. This was not my favorite of The Burger’s neighborhood pals. But she earned some major points by exclaiming, “Cool! Are those real? Can I help?” I sent her to the bathroom to wash her hands, and the two of them worked earnestly, making patterns of thinly sliced lemons on top of the fish and finishing each one with a chef-ly flourish of salt.
We slid the trays into a preheated 400-degree oven, sent the now-slightly-more-tolerable neighbor girl packing, and The Burger and I called her grandparents for the weekly update while The Husband monitored fish doneness***, sauteed some spinach in garlic-infused olive oil, and portioned out the plates.
“I made trout tonight!” The Burger reported to my dad.
“You did? What kind of trout? Rainbow trout?”
“Ummmmm…Costco trout.” (The next day, confusing her big box retailers, she told her daycare teachers that she’d made Target trout for dinner. They already think we’re strange; I’m sure this sealed the deal.)
Dinner was a hit. The burger cleaned her plate, spinach included, and asked for two more helpings of trout. Despite her voracious appetite, we had a ton of trout leftover. It was a Costco-sized package, after all. The Husband repurposed it into a spread/dip kind of thing (lemon mayonnaise, sour cream, minced red onion, parsley and capers) that we ate ourselves sick on the next night while watching football.
But you know what? We forgot to eat the cheeks. And the eyeballs.
*How do you tell if a fish is good? It should look healthy. Look at the eyes — they should be shiny and bright, not sunken or cloudy. The skin should glisten, and if you poke the flesh, it should be firm. And it shouldn’t smell, well, fishy; it should smell clean and briny.
** Shallot salt. It’s awesome. It’ll change your fish life. It’s just sea salt mixed with crushed dehydrated shallots — an allium, a cross between onion and garlic, but milder and sweeter than both. I bought my first bottle from Penzey’s, my second bottle from Savory, and now I just make it myself with The Burger’s help. Just put a bunch of dehydrated shallots in a zip-top bag, have your toddler smash them with a rolling pin or meat tenderizer, then mix them with fine sea salt. Boom.
*** How do you tell if a whole fish is done? Try to pull the fillet away from the bones (use a knife, not your fingers) — it should pull away without too much resistance. If you’re not worried about appearances, you can also break through the skin with a knife or fork and see if the flesh flakes easily. Remember, too, that your fish’ll continue cooking for a minute or two after you remove it from the heat, so if it seems a shade underdone, you’re actually right on target. This goes for portioned fillets, too.