Cooking a Whole Fish

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It probably comes down to the eyeballs. Most people, if asked at a fish market counter why they're choosing salmon filets instead of a whole rockfish or sea bass, would recoil slightly and stutter out something about bones, all the while trying not to meet the accusing (if unseeing) stares pointed their way from the ice.

But once you make your peace with the face of Mr. Fishie, a whole fish is actually much more forgiving to the cook than a filet. Personally, I've had a few rough moments with filets, salmon especially. Getting it to stop being raw and jellylike (heaven to some, creepy to me) at the thick end without turning the other, thinner end into salmon jerky is still sometimes beyond me.

A whole fish, by contrast, does not require split-second or split-screen timing. You can leave it in the oven for a few extra minutes while you wrestle with the corkscrew or work out a knotty point of Hogswarts school policy with your seven-year-old and you won't end up with a main course that looks like a string of little shrunken heads, as you would if you were making, say, shrimp-pineapple-and-cherry-tomato kebabs—a lovely idea, generally, but just a wee bit demanding on the timing aspect.

There's also the grandeur of a whole fish, how it comes to the table looking lavish and extravagant, even if, pound for pound, it's actually much more economical to buy your beast whole. Get it gutted and scaled by your fishmonger, and there's little else you need to do.

It does help to have a good sharp knife around so you can make a few slashes on each side of the fish—three or four, depending on the size of the fish, down to the bone, so the fish will cook evenly without curling and the skin will crisp up. This also reveals the flesh so you can tell instantly if it's cooked all the way through, somewhere on the pearlescent side of just opaque, since it will continue cooking a little off the heat.


whole raw fish - photo by Scott Hawkins
Whole Raw Fish - Photo by Scott Hawkins

Every sea kitten is happier—or at least tastier—for some very thin slices of lemon in the slits, along with a few sprigs of fresh herbs tarragon, summer savory, parsley, mint. Massage the whole fish with olive oil. Don't be stingy. This will make the skin much more delicious while also safeguarding the whole thing from drying out should you be distracted by the aforementioned cork-removal or Snape-and-Malfoy issues.

Now that we're having a little sunshine again, you might be feeling summery enough to fire up the grill. Grilling, especially a good, high-heat charcoal grill, gives a succulent, smoky, beach-in-Spain savor to oilier fish like mackerel and fresh sardines. Salmon, too, is lovely and dramatic on the grill. But you can fake it very well with a hot pan and a broiler, too, especially if you're cooking small, one-to-two person sized fish like branzino, tai snapper, or striped bass.

The lovely, lively Big Sur Bakery Cookbook offers a good trick for such faux-grilling, one that I used myself to great success this weekend. Do the aforementioned lemon-herb-olive oil anointing. Preheat the broiler. While it's heating, splash a little puddle of olive oil into a saute pan big enough to fit your fish. When the oil is good and hot, lay down your fish (watch out for splatters), reduce heat to medium-high and let it get good and browned on the bottom side, about 2 to 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and lift your fish, browned side down, onto the broiler pan. Broil about 8 to 10 inches from the heat for about 8 to 10 minutes, until just cooked through. That initial searing gets the bottom side cooked, without having to wrestle the fish mid-broil.

Present with a flourish, on a platter generous enough to make navigating the skeleton easy. Make sure you have a second plate handy, for depositing the head, tail, and assorted bones. Unless your friends are very familiar with the whole-fish concept, they probably would prefer not to be stared at reproachfully by the head of their dinner during the meal.

whole cooked fish - Photo by Scott Hawkins
Whole Cooked Fish - Photo by Scott Hawkins

Truly fresh fish, simply cooked, is a wonderful thing, and plenty of people just back from a week in Greece will rhapsodize about the beachside fish served so simply, just grilled, with a little olive oil and lemon and it didn't need anything else. But remember—they were on vacation. They were in Greece. They were sitting outside after several days of island hopping and/or hotel sex behind them. When you're staycationing, fish needs a sauce.

Anything herby and tangy is perfect for giving your fish a little bounce. Salsa goes wonderfully with fish, either a lovely, unexpected white-peach salsa, spiked with cilantro, minced red onion, and lime juice, or a juicy tomato salad jazzed up with fantastic heirloom tomatoes in all colors, a handful of corn kernels, loads of basil, chopped scallions and the most fragrant, olive-y olive oil you have.

Italian salsa verde is also a good match. Make a thick slurry of finely chopped herbs—parsley, watercress, plus some combination of mint, basil and/or dill, with just a smidge of tarragon—with a clove of finely chopped garlic, some chopped capers, a couple of anchovies or a bit of anchovy paste, and olive oil. Some hard-boiled egg and a few chopped cornichons will turn it into something like a French sauce gribiche. A little lemon juice and grated lemon peel will perk up the green color and balance the salt from the capers and anchovies. Or you can just uncork that bottle of wine, cut up a lemon, and bask in a few fog-free hours of the city's Mediterranean light.