Fried Fish

by Lisa Locascio
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fish.jpgDuring my first fall as a single person, I started eating fried fish for dinner a few nights a week. I cooked it with ingredients I bought at M2M, a Korean bodega across the street from my apartment building in the East Village. M2M sold three types of fish: salmon, sole, and basa. The salmon was bright orange and fat, the sole was thin and yellow with odd raised bumps like pores, and the basa was light pink and smooth-fleshed. I have a bourgeois distaste for salmon stemming from a childhood vacation to France where it had was served at nearly every meal, and I feared the wan, pebbly sole. So I always bought the basa, despite the fact that before moving across the street from M2M I had never heard of this fish.

Each package of basa contained two fillets; when I cooked dinner for myself, I used only one, leaving the other piece in its yellow Styrofoam tray and covering it with cellophane wrap to spend another night in the refrigerator. I rinsed the basa fillet under the water, sometimes squeezing the juice of half of a lemon onto the slippery flesh. Then I traced the seam that ran down the center of the fillet with my small ceramic knife and divided the fillet in two parts. There were no bones. I cut each of the twin pieces into smaller chunks, then broke an egg into a bowls and beat it. In another bowl I mixed together equal parts flour and cornmeal with half-teaspoons of black pepper and oregano and a pinch of salt. I dropped the pieces of fish into the beaten egg, rinsed them around with the fingers of my left hand, and then dropped them into the flour mixture. I tossed them in the flour with the fingers of my right hand.

The window in my kitchen looked out onto the courtyard of a school for musically talented children. In the morning the courtyard was full of children screaming happily, but at night and in the afternoon it was empty and quiet. I listened to public radio constantly so that the silence wouldn’t spook me. I felt betrayed when WNYC switched from talk radio to classical music at night and listened to the AM sports channel instead.

corn-tortillas_2.jpgWhen all of the fish had been dredged in flour I poured half an inch of canola oil into the heavy cast-iron skillet my mother had bought for me when I had moved into this apartment alone. I turned the stove on to medium heat and waited for a minute, bracing my back against the counter or washing my hands in the sink. Then I dropped the pieces of fish into the pan and watched small oil storms sizzle up around the pale chunks. The radio droned on the statistics of teams playing in places I had never been, rattling off high stakes and distant cities.

While the fish fried I chopped an avocado and a small wedge of red cabbage. Sometimes I made pico de gallo and spooned some of that out onto my plate. I wrapped four or five corn tortillas in a wet paper towel and microwaved them for one and a half minutes. I liked to arrange these things on the plate in a pleasing way, to feel like I was making something nice for myself, even though I would eat it alone in a matter of minutes, with no one to witness my craft. When the basa had turned golden in the oil, I lifted it from the pan and dropped it on a plate layered with paper towels, using a scarred black plastic flipper that I had watched my boyfriend cook a thousand eggs with in another life.

I squirted more lemon juice over the basa, listening for the sizzle of the liquid hitting the hot fish. I salted and peppered the chunks. Then I shook them onto my plate, into the empty space I had left for the basa between its dressings. If it was nighttime I carried the plate into the living room, where I would watch a television show. I ate hunched over my plate, leaning away from the couch. If it was daytime I pulled the stepstool up to the counter in the kitchen and ate there, listening to the voices on the radio talk about the world outside.

fishtaco.jpgI am a methodical person. Routine comforts me, especially in the absence of company. I carefully arranged one or two pieces of fried basa inside a tortilla and spooned in the vegetables I had chosen as accompaniments, then held the whole thing together as I tried to eat in measured bites. Mostly I failed at this. The fish fell out the back of the taco and I started to bolt the food, wanting to put it in my body before its beauty left. I was alone; there was no one to watch me.

I had come upon a version of this recipe in a magazine many years earlier. Its current incarnation was the result of many nights I had spent cooking for my family at our summerhouse. We almost always arrived there after midnight, and everyone would be ravenous from the drive. It was my job to come up with a solution. I carried the dishes to the sink, turned on the water, and closed my eyes. I thought of summer.

 

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