At Mercy last weekend, I ordered the flounder with a beurre blanc sauce. As we waited for our main courses and smeared pate onto crostini, we poured wine into each other's glasses and talked grinningly about our brushes with the police and our plans for spring travel. When my entree arrived, I took two bites and decided that I liked it. I also peered down and poked at the fish inquisitively with my fork.
"Oh!" I said. "I didn't know that flounder had such a fine--"
...flake. That flounder had such a fine flake, such a short grain. But amid the rancor at the table, among my chattering friends, I remembered half a second too late for my sentence that I did know.
As I walked into the 80,000 square foot behemoth of a "natural foods" store, my eyes roved ceaselessly, seeking inspiration. It was late in the morning and hot outside already, and I shuffled through the aisles in my baggy capris and wooden sandals, gleeful about the dizzying selection of goods. After winding through one circuit of the store, I settled at the seafood counter to choose the focal point for tonight's dinner. Always a novice when it came to seafood, I hardly knew halibut from haddock and usually picked a new variety to try each time I decided to cook fish. Today, flounder was on sale. I asked for two large fillets.
Allowing ideas to spring from my brown paper parcel with pictures of happy blue fish, I wandered to the produce section. There, I hefted ruby grapefruit, choosing one that felt weighty. I combed through summer squash, looking for a few with springy, bright skin that dragged a little when I rubbed it. I sniffed at tomatoes, wrinkling my nose at the skunky, pungent smell of the freshest ones' stems.
I ducked into the salad dressing aisle to pick up a bottle of red wine vinegar infused with shallot flavor. I wondered if the shallots would even be noticeable.
On my way to the checkout, I was distracted by some sense of incompletion with regard to my summer squash when I was greeted and enticed over by the "in-house nut roaster." With his plastic-gloved hand, he extended a sample over the counter to me: tomato and basil pecans. I took the sample good-naturedly, but brightened when I tasted the pecans. They were incredible, and what's more, they would taste great crumbled into a pan of sautéed squash.
Six hours later, I had whisked a homemade vinaigrette and left it to marinate into pieces of sectioned grapefruit and hothouse tomato. I knifed the summer squash into biased slices and placed them in a medium saucepan, allowing them to cook on the back burner with a little bit of butter while I attended to the flounder. I rubbed freshly cracked black pepper and sea salt onto each side along with wisps of parsley and slivered garlic.
After a fifteen-minute rest, during which I turned the tomato salad over again in its bowl and threw some dried herbs into the squash, I heated two tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet. When the olive oil began to look volatile and somewhat irritable, I laid both flounder fillets down in the pan, careful to place both pieces away from the pan's edges. For three minutes, I let the fillets hiss and crackle in the olive oil. Always a novice when it came to seafood, I prayed that the crust of the fish had set and tried to flip one piece over with a deft flick of my wooden spatula. But the spatula got hung up hardly an inch past the underside of the piece. So I dug in, scraping a little, trying to keep it from breaking apart. As I lifted the piece, I left behind an ugly, jagged layer of exposed fish flesh, the gorgeously seared and browned underside that I had awkwardly separated from the piece balanced on my spatula.
I had turned it too soon, and I hadn't used enough oil. Besides that, the flounder had a very small, fine flake that I wasn't expecting. The texture was more delicate than I realized it would be, leaving many more places for the fillet to break into pieces or simply disintegrate into mush. Different from sea bass or tuna steak, flounder needed more coaxing to cooperate, and I had failed to deliver.
"I didn't know that flounder had such a fine..." I muttered. Now in recovery mode, I had set both fillets down to cook on their other sides, adding more oil to the pan.
"Such a what?" he drowsed from the living room couch. The hissing oil had woken him and my muttering had caught his ear. He rose from the sofa and staggered five steps over to the kitchen, rubbing his eyes as he did. Walking up behind me at the stove, he put his hands on my shoulders, leaned in to kiss me on the neck, and looked at my fishy mess.
"That smells good," he said.
"Yeah, but I screwed it up," I replied.
"It looks fine to me," he offered. "But you know me. If it's not completely charred black all the way through or emitting toxic fumes, I'll probably eat it. And even if it is like that, there's a good chance I'll at least taste it." I giggled. The fish was done, and I slid each piece onto a dinner plate. I mixed the pecans (now crushed) into the squash and added a serving to each plate. In separate salad bowls, I spooned the chilled tomato grapefruit salad. As I looked at the meal, my consternation grew.
"Looks great," he murmured.
"No. I can do better." I eyed the plates. The flounder was golden brown on each side, with bedraggled edges and little cracks here and there.
"Aw, come on. You don't need to impress me. You don't have to cook the perfect meal. I wouldn't even know what perfect is."
"I can do better," I simply repeated, and reached for the skillet. "I'm gonna try to fix it, so give me another minute or two, okay?" I held the skillet under the faucet and vigorously scrubbed away the bits of fish stuck to the bottom as he shook his head in amusement. Once the pan was clean again, I dumped in three teaspoons of olive oil, heated it on the stove, added the fish, waited two and a half minutes before turning each piece (since they were already cooked), and waited another two and a half minutes for the opposite sides. I flipped each piece onto its plate a second time.
"There," I sighed with satisfaction.
"Oh, wow, those do look way better. You're right." The flounder was now a deep, caramelized brown on each side, with a crisp clean surface and uniform edges. "This looks awesome. You are awesome. Did I ever tell you how awesome you are?" he said, and kissed me on the mouth.
I grinned and agreed, "Way better."
So, at Mercy, as I dug into the flounder with beurre blanc beside the dim lighting of votive candles, I should not have been surprised that my flounder had such a fine flake. I should not have been startled by that simple fact. But the wave of quiet, private sadness that followed--the still ache of a secret recollection--no matter my level of awareness, that part catches me off guard every single time.