Firm, flaky, skinless, boneless flathead fillets are a taste sensation and can be cooked in any number of ways. And the sweetest, most delicious flatties to eat are those ‘school’ fish from 40cm-60cm long.
Making these fish taste as good as they possibly can starts with looking after the flathead the moment you catch it and decide to eat it.
Remember, keep only as many as you need and heed bag and size limits. In NSW it’s 10 dusky flathead (legal 36cm, only one over 70cm) or 20 of the others, minimum 33cm. The dusky has a distinguishing black spot on its tail fin.
Any fish kept for the table should immediately be killed as humanely as possible. Use a sharp knock to the head with a heavy object or brain spike using the iki jime technique with a probe, sharpened screwdriver or knife tip. The best spot is on the centre line just forward of the intersection of an imaginary line between the opercular spikes.
Keep the fish in a slurry of ice and saltwater until you’re ready to fillet it.
If possible, rinse or wash the fish in saltwater, rather than fresh. Freshwater tends to leach out the flavour and soften the flesh; add some salt to freshwater if you’re at home.
As with cats, there’s more than one way to fillet a flathead. This one works for me and might for you if you give it a try.
Hold the fish on its side by the head, avoiding the opercular spikes. Use a glove if you don’t feel comfortable. A short, sharp, stiffish knife is better for flatties than a long, flexible one. Insert the knife between the pectoral and pelvic fins. Make the first cut with the blade towards the head; the further forward you can work the knife, the more meat you’ll get on the fillet and the less you’ll leave in the fish’s head.
Cut down all the way down to the spine, rocking the blade a little if you need to get it to cut through bones – rock rather than saw.
Rotate the blade 90° and run it along the spine towards the tail, severing the rib bones as you go.
Slide the knife all the way to the tail and remove the fillet.
Lay the fillet skin side down and slide the tip of the knife between the skin and the shoulder of the fish to separate the two until you have some skin you can grip.
Begin to peel the skin from the fillet; use your thumbnail to separate the two if some of the flesh wants to stay on the skin. Hey, nobody said this was a clean job!
Once the skin seems to be coming away cleanly, use the fin as a handle and just strip the skin away.
The skin should come away cleanly, once you get a clean start.
With the skinned side of the fillet up, locate the rib bones, some of which are likely to protrude from the flesh. Feel the bones back to the one closest to the tail, maybe 40% of the way down the fillet.
Work the blade downwards and through the fillet and forward as close to the rib bones as possible. Do it slowly and carefully and the bones actually become a slicing guide.
Do the same on the other side of the ribcage and remove the section containing the bones.
You’re left with a Y-shaped fillet. One leg of the Y will be the belly flap, in which three bones remain. Use your fingers to feel for these and, with the tip of the knife, your fingers, tweezers or pliers, remove them. The top flap already should be boneless. Wash the fillets in saltwater or salted freshwater, never in freshwater. Store in an ice/saltwater slurry or cover and refrigerate.
Long after the flattie is dead, these opercular spikes can leave a lasting impression on an unwary angler.
Feed the frames, skins and offcuts to these freeloaders!Reads: 1144