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Survival of the Fishiest

One Valentine’s Day a few years ago, I got Scott an exotic fish for his salt water tank.

And by exotic, I mean tropical freaktastic.  I had to consult with dozens of fish store über-dorks before I found what I wanted: a pygmy frogfish.

The damned thing had ELBOWS.

We brought the fish home and put it in Scott’s tank with his other less exotic–but still expensive–fishes.

And it was a Valentine’s Day Miracle:  I had gotten Scott the perfect present.

A bottle of merlot was opened.

Everybody involved either swam around or made out.

Night came.

And then something terrible happened.

The pygmy frogfish turned into a colossal asshole.

Specifically, he grew a FISHING ROD from his HEAD.

At the end of the fishing rod was a bright red ball.

And this bright red ball caused an epic nature channel show-down.

Unfortunately, we slept through it.

The next morning, the pygmy frogfish was three times his original size.  He had jumped several weight classes.  Nothing about him was “pygmy” at all.

Also, he was alone.

And the expression on his face was all “I’M FROM FREAKING BELIZE, DUDES.  BRING ME SOME WINE.”

Now would be a good time to point out that the other fish had cost $60-$80 a pop.  Some had been around for years.

One allegedly “knew Scott’s voice.”

I didn’t know what that meant, but I was not in a position to question it.

Eventually–much later–we were able to look the frogfish in the eyes again.

We named him Alexandro, because that’s the most popular name for boys in Belize.

He lived the long, contented life of a complete asshole.

                                                                               ~The End~

N.B.  Depending on which fish you identified with in this story, the lesson is either “life is short” or “seafood is the choice of champions.”

In the spirit of both, I’m making Scott some sea bass next week.  I’m calling it Sea Bass Alexandro with Fennel.

It’s tasty, good for you, and pretty easy.  All you do is chop the fennel and braise it with white wine, bay leaves and raisins.  You also chop one little shallot that goes with the fish into the oven.

It’s a special meal because halibut and bass can be a bit expensive.  But we are already so far in the hole when it comes to Alexandro that we figured what’s an extra $20.

The key is not overcooking the fish, and turning your heat up enough on the fennel that it browns prettily. (I wasn’t much good at that, but it tasted great.)

This recipe originally appeared here in Food & Wine magazine as a halibut recipe to feed 6 people.  I tweaked it so it yields hearty portions for 2 and could stretch to 3, and I used Chilean sea bass instead of halibut.

Sea Bass Alexandro with Braised Fennel  {Download & Print Recipe}


1½ tbsp. olive oil

2 fennel bulbs

salt & pepper

1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper (red pepper flakes)

2/3 c. + 1 tbsp. white wine

2 bay leaves

1/4 c. golden raisins

1 small shallot

1 lb. meaty white fish, such as halibut or bass, skin removed


Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

To make the fennel:

Discard the leafy tops of the fennel.  Rinse the fennel bulbs and cut them in half along the long width of the fennel. (See the second picture above of the fennel on the cutting board.) Then cut into wedges about an inch thick.

In a large skillet, heat 1 tbsp. of the olive oil. Add the fennel wedges with a cut side of each facing down. Sprinkle with salt and black pepper and the crushed red pepper.

Cover and cook over medium heat about 12-18 minutes, turning the wedges halfway through. The goal is to brown the fennel. If it’s not browning, turn the heat up a little bit.

Add 2/3 c. of the wine, the bay leaves and raisins, and simmer uncovered over low heat, turning the wedges a few times, until most of the wine has evaporated and the fennel is tender, 15 minutes or more. The fennel should not cook so long that it’s mushy, but it shouldn’t still be crunchy.

Discard the bay leaves and taste the fennel, seasoning with salt and black pepper if needed.

To make the fish:

Mince the shallot. Spread the shallot in the shape of the fish fillet on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle the remaining 1 tbsp. of wine on top of the shallots.

(If you don’t have a rimmed baking sheet, you can cover your unrimmed sheet with tin foil and mold the edges up into a rim.)

Season the bottom (skinned) side of the fish with some salt and black pepper and place it over the minced shallot. Rub the top of the fish with the remaining 1/2 tbsp. olive oil and season with salt and black pepper.

Roast the fish on the top shelf of the oven until it is barely opaque in the center.

(Note that the cooking time will depend on what kind of fish you got and how thick it is. My sea bass was more than 2 inches thick and took about 15 minutes. Just flake the fish back to check for doneness and remember that it will keep cooking for a few minutes after you remove it from the heat.)

Transfer the fish with its cooking juices to a platter and spoon the braised fennel alongside.


2-3 servings.


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41 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thunder needs to come visit me – you can keep the freaky fish from Belize LOL

    February 8, 2012
    • Shelley, she loves road trips. To the point where when I take her for a walk, she runs to the car and would rather get in it than walk around the block. It’s weird.

      February 8, 2012
      • My dogs are equally insane like that – back in Washington Eric used to take them for “coffee” – He would drive to the local drive thru coffee place and they gave the dogs treats through the window. All he had to say was the word “coffee” and they got nutty and started prancing around by the door
        To this day going through drive thru is a confusing experience for them – they keep wondering what happened to their treats….

        February 9, 2012
  2. Love your humour, and Thunder is irresistible. Oh, the recipes look pretty good too!

    February 8, 2012
    • Thank you so much! I laughed at your story about getting locked out and having to climb back through the window– it did indeed look like Friar Tuck breaking and entering. And your harira looks delicious.

      February 8, 2012
  3. I loved this story. How dumbfounding to look at the tank and only see the pygmy who was just a little piggy. And then onto eating the brethren in delicious delight. This story has everything. Thank you for sharing.

    February 8, 2012
    • It’s so kind of you to leave this note.

      Your flour tortillas. . . they look PERFECT. I can’t stop looking at them. You are really putting great stuff up on your site.

      February 8, 2012
  4. Aw. Growing up we had an aquarium and learned a lot of things about fish eating fish. Now my kids have a lone beta and if anyone eats fish it’s us. Somehow, strangely, that is much less traumatic.

    February 8, 2012
  5. Our fish experience ended when my 3 year old (20 years ago) poured toxic milk in the tank… Who would have thought.
    Try a bit of butter and dash of brown sugar on the fennel… Will brown nicely.
    We love your pooch. Your writing is great and I laugh every time… But that guy is a show stealer.

    February 9, 2012
    • Oh geez. . . I tasted some spoiled milk a few weeks ago and boy was it disgusting. I’m not sure I’d even wish it on Alexandro in the cool light of day.
      Thanks for the brown sugar tip– I forgot that I do that when caramelizing onions. I’ll add just a little to the fennel next time so that it doesn’t tip the flavor balance of the raisins/red pepper. Thanks! Thunder is indeed a show stealer, but to be fair, that also means she’s a sock stealer and a remote control stealer and a time stealer and a hairbrush stealer. . .

      February 9, 2012
      • Tip: Don’t taste milk that might have gone bad. It might have gone bad.

        March 4, 2012
  6. I (okay, it was my son) had a rogue hermit crab who did the same thing as asshole fish. Only they leave evidence…in pieces…all over the aquarium. We had a mass burial in the backyard. Also, cannibalisitic hermit crab had a shell decorated like Spiderman. I don’t know what that means.

    P.S.~Love the recipe!

    February 9, 2012
    • Oh Jen that sounds terrible. I had a hermit crab named “Hermie” when I was little, and man they smell. . . unique. Also, mine never wanted to change shells, which was really disappointing for some reason. I’m guessing your son’s hermit crab was inspired by the Spiderman design. He probably felt he had an illustrious shell to fill. Unlike Hermie, who was clinically depressed for two years.

      February 9, 2012
  7. OMG I laughed a lot at your Pygmy fish! I had a fish that used to chew on the tails of the other fish in the tank until they were shredded. I had to separate them in the end, like naughty kids. Who’d have thought having a fish could be so much trouble.
    I love how you start your recipes with a funny story and your dog is uber cute.

    February 9, 2012
    • Why thank you! I WISH we had been awake to separate the fish as you did, before the carnage really got going. I actually had some fish a few years ago who had babies a couple months after I bought them. The dad tried to eat them, so I had to separate them all. That meant a dozen mason jars filled with teeny tiny swimmy things all over my apartment. I had just moved and was trying to make new friends, and everyone who came to my apartment thought I was certifiable.

      I love the pom pom hat you made, and Kaden is adorable.

      February 9, 2012
  8. Can I leave out the raisins?

    I never expected to get inspiration for my blog from yours, but I ought to do a collection of stories of pets eating other pets.I couldn’t beat the way you tell it though.

    February 9, 2012
    • Pets eating other pets is definitely a good “animals behaving badly” idea– I’d totally want to read that! (By the by, I’m glad I left New York before the subway was invaded by opossums–your telling of it was hilarious.)

      You could definitely leave out the raisins. The raisins add just the right amount of sweetness to counterbalance the sprinkle of red pepper flakes, so if you do leave them out, you may indeed want to sprinkle a little brown sugar on the fennel (I’d start with a teaspoon) to restore the flavor balance.

      February 9, 2012
  9. 1. I hope The Robot doesn’t give you wooden chocolates for Valentine’s Day.
    2. When I was living in Toronto, my roommate had a massive tank of really fugly fish. They were huge – like bigger than my hands. They committed suicide. No lie. They flung themselves one by one from the tank. And then I’d have to draw a little chalk outline around their flaccid bodies and cover them with a serviette until identification and notifications could be made.

    February 9, 2012
    • Movita,

      1. I am already whittling a wooden sign that says “really?” and another that says “seriously?”– I plan to hold them up in the event I receive wooden chocolates.
      2. I hope your share of the rent was prorated for each that flopped its way out of this world and into the next.
      3. My favorite fish in the world is the goldfish from the movie “What About Bob.” Do you hate that movie too because Bill Murray is in it? (Sigh.)

      February 9, 2012
  10. We bought some starter fish for my very young children and managed to keep them alive long enough for an attachment to form. We awoke one morning to find one of them floating at the surface. Being overprotective yuppy parents of the 21st century, we were concerned that this might traumatize our precious young ones. So we decided to teach a valuable lesson on the whole Disney “circle of life” mantra and hold a solemn fish funeral in the bathroom. We all said goodbye by reciting our own personal remembrances of our newly departed fishy, and as it was making it’s last few circles around the bottom of the toilet, our 3 year old daughter looked up and said, “that was fun, can we flush the other one now”?.

    I will keep my eyes open for your upcoming “pygmy frogfish” recipe (I assume it has been adequately fattened up).

    February 9, 2012
    • Troy, this story makes my day. It’s absolutely hilarious. Whether it’s an awesome attitude or no understanding of death, your daughter sounds like she’s fun to be around.

      The fish funeral is a fine tradition. I had a black guppy named Barney who died because he had a gas bubble in him. Otherwise known as a fart that wouldn’t come out. I asked the vet about it (I was little). He said I could try to squeeze the fish but not too hard, or it would die. Having that information was totally traumatizing. I agonized over what to do and eventually did not try to squeeze him for fear he would pop. He promptly died and after much to-do, he was buried in the back yard in a little box next to all the other goldfish that are going to scare the crap out of whoever digs them up by accident one day.

      February 9, 2012
      • Jenifer #

        OMG! That black guppy story is almost as funny as the asshole fish story!! “Gas bubble”!! HA!!

        February 11, 2012
        • Ha– it does make me laugh now but at the time–oh, at the time it was terrible! I was little, and I was being told that if I tried to save him, I could kill him. It was kind of traumatizing. To this day, I am scared of farting pets. Which is problematic, because now I own a bulldog.

          February 13, 2012
  11. a #

    My friend had a salt water tank – one of his fish was square. I think it was a box fish? It was pretty cool…especially since it didn’t eat the other fish in the tank.

    February 9, 2012
  12. Unfortunately I identify with the unlucky fish lol…

    But this is a great recipe. I may try it out for V-Day!

    February 9, 2012
    • Hi there, Antoinette! I felt for those poor little guys, too. It was not a good day for most of the inhabitants of that tank (or that apartment, for that matter.) Happy Valentine’s Day!

      February 13, 2012
  13. Hilarious!! I had no idea fish were so expensive. Or mean.

    February 10, 2012
  14. Jenifer #

    Love the last picture of the fish looking all happy that his belly is full and noone is around to bother him!
    Love how Thunder has the same look about the mean fish as she had about the Christmas sweater episode!! LOL

    February 11, 2012
    • Jenifer, that’s so true. I forgot about that picture. This is the look she gives me when she’s REALLY not pleased with the way the situation is unfolding. I’ve seen it in the bath tub, in the moment right before I put shampoo on her. It’s not a pretty time for either of us.

      February 13, 2012
  15. Oh my God, your cartoons are awesome.

    February 12, 2012
    • Hee hee. Thanks! I am a terrible drawer, but Alexandro and I stared at each other for so long that he is etched in my memory. (Wwhen I started the staring contest, I forgot that he was not going to blink, because he is a fish. It was awkward and eventually I walked away.)

      February 13, 2012
  16. Love your stories and your recipes, so I thought I’d pass on the Liebster love!

    February 12, 2012
    • You are so kind! Thank you for thinking of me. It makes me all warm and fuzzy-like inside, and excited about blogging. But now that I read your post about the amazing Israeli meal you had in Philly, I also feel kind of hungry.

      February 13, 2012
  17. My roommate and I had a very similar experience with our salt water tank. We got a bunch of regular salt watery fish and some snails and starfish and such. Then we added a hermit crab named Pinchy. The guys at the store warned us that the starfish would eat the crab in a hurry, but we had faith that cooler heads would prevail. After putting Pinchy in the tank, it took about 10 minutes before one of the starfish went after him. Pinchy ripped that thing asunder with a quickness, and then trotted around the tank, waving a severed starfish arm in his one big claw. It was like he was the new guy in prison and had to kill someone on his first day to make sure everyone left him alone.

    February 13, 2012
    • That is hilarious. PLEASE tell me that you started playing the crab’s song from the Little Mermaid–“Under the Sea”–while this was happening. It’d be like the scene in Reservoir Dogs, when happy music is playing while they cut off the guy’s ear.

      February 13, 2012
      • This was a dark time in my life, so “Under the Sea” was playing on a loop all day, every day. It wasn’t intended as ironic background music for the slaughter, but it really worked out well.

        February 13, 2012
  18. Funny 🙂

    March 4, 2012
  19. Wow you were right, I DID like that story! What an awful thing when you gave such a thoughtful gift and it turned out so badly. I hope he was understanding! When I’ve had fishie problems I’ve found advice online and in pet shops conflicting, so I’m not surprised your uber geek fish advisors let you down!

    July 31, 2012

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