One fish, two fish, let's cook a whole fish
Of all the preparations I tried, the most jaw-dropping method — for its simplicity and flavor — was to cover a denizen of the deep in salt and put it in the oven. Done.
PEOPLE IN various cultures who cook whole fish can attest to its stunning presentation and flavor. But I come from a boneless-skinless crowd that favors neat fillets. While I am not squeamish myself, some of my friends and family — carnivores even — would shriek if eyes peered up from a plate.
In Europe, I enjoy eating whole fish, but at home I rarely do more than toss a fennel-stuffed salmon on the grill. Why is it OK in the Mediterranean, but not here? I couldn't make heads or tails (sorry) of this cultural divide. So I went on a mission to embrace fish that was not skinless in Seattle.
My first stop was Mutual Fish Company in the Rainier Valley. Kevin Yoshimura told me his customers come from many cultures: one person might fry catfish in cornmeal while another may buy sea bass to steam Cantonese-style.
Over two weeks, I experimented with four types: local rockfish, daurade (sea bream) from Greece, wild tai snapper from New Zealand, and farmed sea bass from Greece (called branzino in Italy and loup de mer in France). The foreign fish run about $10 a pound, reasonable compared to fillets of fresh salmon or halibut. Admittedly, I had some misgivings about using these fancy fins flown in from afar, given all the attention to eating local these days. So I included rockfish, a Northwest option that is available at Mutual and Uwajimaya for about half the price.
Recipe websites, cookbooks and food blogs promise that cooking whole fish is simple and rewarding. They are right. Skin and bones should not intimidate; they add incredible flavor and are easy to remove. Christine Keff, chef/owner of Flying Fish and resident seafood expert, offers these poetic tips for landing a fresh catch: look for a fish with clear eyes that smells like the sea; make sure there are no patches without scales; if you poke it, it should spring back.
Gutting — the hardest and messiest part — can be done at the store, thankfully. Ask the fishmonger to clean the fish, with "head and tail left on, fins and scales removed." I learned to say these empowering words with confidence.
The versatility of whole fish is limitless. Steaming, popular in many Asian cultures, opens up creative options for fast and healthy dining. I cooked a one-pound tai snapper in just 10 minutes, served with a soy-ginger-scallion sauce, steamed a daurade Thai-style, and made local rockfish with black-bean sauce. These were all wonderful with rice and sautéed vegetables, although right about this time my children rolled their eyes and asked, "When are you going to be done with your research?"
Of all the preparations I tried, the most jaw-dropping method — for its simplicity and flavor — was to cover a denizen of the deep in salt and put it in the oven. Done. The fish was so succulent, I couldn't believe how fast and easy the process was. The mound of salt kept it moist and lent a definite taste of saltiness, but not too much. And, I have to admit, the natural harmony of fish and salt is undeniable.
Baking a fish in salt dates back to ancient times, and today it can be found on menus in Mediterranean restaurants. Typically a paste is made out of salt and egg whites (or water) to pack around the body like wet sand. The crust hardens as it cooks, and cracking it tableside is dramatic. However, in an ongoing effort to simplify, I used just fish and salt. Less is more. I loved sea bass and tai snapper this way, but didn't care for rockfish because the bones and skin were harder to remove.
Regardless of how you fix it, diving into a whole fish the first time takes a wee bit of practice. The skin actually peels off easily, exposing the top fillet, which can be carefully removed with a spoon. The backbone lifts off in one piece. Then pieces of the second side may be removed. The fillet falls apart, and that's fine. Better for soaking up sauce.
Squeamish types, get over it. You don't have to eat the cheeks and eyes, though some people swear those are the best parts. It is a matter of culture, taste and sense of adventure. Once on a family vacation in Greece, we ordered grilled fish at a restaurant. "The eye is the best part," the server said. "The eyes and brains are delicacies in Greece." My youngest son, 4 at the time, was brave enough to try the eye. He plopped it in his mouth and said "Yum!" After a moment, he pulled out a small round piece, held it in the air, and announced proudly, "This is the pupil!"
Catherine M. Allchin is a Seattle freelance writer. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Whole Fish in Salt
1 whole sea bass, 1 to 1 1/2 pounds, cleaned and gutted (head and tail left on) or other similar whole fish
2 pounds coarse sea salt or Kosher salt, divided
High-quality olive oil and lemon wedges to serve
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Spread half the salt on a baking tray. Place the fish on top of the salt. Cover with the remaining salt. (The fish should be completely enclosed, though the tail may be exposed.) Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, then withdraw from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes.
2. Remove the salt from around the fish with a spoon and/or brush. Carefully transfer the fish to a platter. Gently pull off the skin. Lift pieces of the top fillet from the bones and transfer to a plate. Carefully lift the backbone and discard. Gently remove the bottom fillet pieces from the skin and place on a second plate.
Drizzle each with olive oil and fresh lemon juice.
Cook's note: Variations include stuffing the fish cavity with aromatics such as fresh thyme, rosemary or lemon slices, or adding herbs or lavender to the salt before baking.
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