Fish of the same species vary a great deal in quality according to the water in which they are caught. A black bass taken from one of the overflow lakes of the Mississippi bears no comparison with its brother from a swift, clear, spring-fed Ozark river. But however pure its native waters may be, no fish is good to eat unless it has been properly cared for after catching (see Chapter XV) ; and the best of fish is ruined if fried soggy with grease (see Chapter XVI under Frying).
Small fish should be fried whole, with the backbone severed to prevent curling up; large fish may be steaked (see Chapter XV) ; medium ones should have heads and tails removed so they will lie flat in the pan, and have the backbone cut in two or three places.
It is customary to roll fish in cornmeal or bread crumbs, thinly and evenly, before frying. Thar browns them, and keeps them from sticking to the pan; but it is best only for coarse fish; trout is of better flavor if simply wiped dry.
Fry in plenty of very hot grease to a golden brown, sprinkling lightly with pepper and salt just as the color turns. If the fish is not naturally rull-flavored, a few drops of lemon juice will improve it.
Olive oil is best to fry fish in, especially small ones that can be quite immersed in it; but Crisco, bacon, salt pork, butter, or lard will do very well.
When butter is used, less salt is required. If the fish has not been wiped dry it will absorb too much grease. If the frying fat is not very hot when fish are put in it they will get soggy with it: put the pieces in one at a time so as not to check the heat.
(See also Chapter XVI.) If a broiling iron is used, first rub it with fat bacon to prevent fish from sticking to it. When broiling large fish, remove the head, split down the back instead of the belly, and lay on the broiler with strips of bacon or pork laid across. Broil over a rather moderate bed of coals so that the inside will cook done, but beware of cooking dry and " chippy." Small fish are best broiled quickly over ardent coals. They need not have heads removed.
When done, sprinkle with salt and pepper, spread with butter (unless you have been basting with bacon), and hold again over fire until butter melts.
If you have no broiler, sharpen a small green stick, thrust this through the mouth and into the body, and keep turning over the coals while you baste with the drippings from a bit of bacon held on another stick above the fish.
Small fish may be skewered on a thin, straight, greenwood stick, sharpened at the end, with a thin slice of bacon or pork between every two fish, the stick being constantly turned over the coals like a spit, so that juices may not be lost.
Another way is to cut some green hardwood sticks, about three feet long, forked at one end, and sharpen the tines. Lay a thin slice of pork inside each fish lengthwise, drive tines through fish and pork, letting them through between ribs near backbone and on opposite sides of the latter — then the fish won't drop off as soon as it begins to soften and curl from the heat. Place a log lengthwise of edge of coals, lay broiling sticks on this support; slanting upward over the fire, and lay a small lot over their butts. Large fish should be planked.
This process is simpler than baking, and superior in resulting "flavor, since the fish is basted in its own juices, and is delicately browned by the direct action of the fire. The surface of the fish is lightly moistened with olive oil (first choice) or butter; lacking these, use drippings, or bacon grease, or lard. Then place the fish in the pan and add two or three morsels of grease around it. Roast in front of a good fire, just as you would bake biscuit. Be careful not to overroast and dry the fish by evaporating the gravy. There is no better way to cook a large fish, unless it be planked.
More expeditious than baking, and better flavored. Split and smooth a slab of sweet hardwood two or three inches thick, two feet long, and somewhat wider than the opened fish. Prop it in front of a bed of coals till it is sizzling hot. Split the fish down the back its entire length, but do not cut through the belly skin. Clean and wipe it quite dry. When plank is hot, grease it, spread fish out like an opened book, tack it, skin side down, to the plank and prop before fire. Baste continuously with a bit of pork on a switch held above it, or with butter. Reverse ends of plank from time to time. If the flesh is flaky when pierced with a fork, it is done. Sprinkle salt and pepper over the fish, moisten with drippings, and serve on the hot plank. No better dish ever was set before an epicure. Plenty of butter improves it at table.
Clean, remove fins, but leave on head and tail. Prepare a stuffing as follows: put a cupful of dry bread-crumbs in a frying-pan over the fire with two tablespoonfuls of drippings, or the equivalent of butter, and stir them until they begin to brown. Then add enough boiling water to moisten them. Season this stuffing rather highly with salt, pepper, and either celery seed, or sage, or a teaspoonful of finely chopped onion. Stuff the fish with this and sew up the opening, or wind string several times around the fish. Lay several strips of salt pork or bacon in the pan, and several over the top of the fish. Sprinkle over all a little water, pepper, salt, and bread crumbs (or dredge with flour). Bake in a hot oven, basting frequently. When flakes of fish begin to separate, it will be done. This is best for coarse fish.
Smear some tissue Manila paper with butter. Clean the fish, leaving head and fins on. Season with salt and cayenne pepper. Roll each fish separately in a piece of the buttered paper. Place the fish in a pile and envelop them in a large sheet of paper. Then wrap the bundle in a newspaper, and dip this in water for five minutes, or long enough to saturate the newspaper. Scrape a hole in the middle of a bed of coals, and bury the package in the embers. Leave it there ten to twenty minutes, depending upon size. The newspaper will scorch, but the inner wrappers will not. The result is a dish fit for Olympus. (Up De Graff).