Yesterday we hosted a major fete at our house. It was the annual barbecue for [The Man I Love]'s office and colleagues, so it was both pleasure and work. The custom has evolved that we provide the main course and the drinks, and it's potluck for everything else. [The Man I Love]'s tour de force is slow-smoked pork shoulder and beer-can chicken. I usually concoct something suitable for people who didn't want to eat red meat.
I wanted to make something that would be delicious, yet not too difficult. And I wanted it to impress, too. No fussing around with filets - I decided to cook fish as you find them - whole.
It's not easy to find whole fish. Most supermarkets don't offer them. You have to find a good fishmarket to get a good choice. In Los Angeles, Asian markets offer a wide variety - sometimes you can even choose your fish while it's swimming in a tank. The wholesale fish markets are downtown, but you have to go early in the day. I went shopping at the end of my workday, and luckily Santa Monica Seafood is just a few blocks away.
Whole fish baked in a crust of salt
1 whole fish, 3 pounds or two 1 1/2 pound fish, clean, with head and tail
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
1 tsp whole fennel seed
1 tsp whole coriander seeds
1 lemon, cut into 1/8" slices
1 onion cut into thin slices
1 box Kosher salt - I used Morton's
2 egg whites
1/2 cup water
Most of the recipes I've seen for this dish use whole red snapper. East Coast and West Coast fishmarkets use that name for two completely different fish, and what you get on the West Coast can be any number of different species. In the long run, the best practice is to go to a fishmarket with a good reputation and tell them you want a fish that's suitable for salt-baking. At Santa Monica Seafood they recommended Striped Bass, which is considered a Good Choice by Seafood Watch, a group that promotes sustainable fisheries.
I got two fish that weighed a little more than a pound and a half each. They gutted and cleaned the fish at the market, leaving the head and tails on.
I toasted some whole spices in a hot, small skillet, then smashed them around a bit with my mortar and pestle. I used fennel, coriander and black pepper, but another good combination might include freeze-dried green or pink peppercorns.
I rubbed the spice mixture in the body cavity of each fish, then stuffed the cavity with sliced lemons and onions, and added a sprig of thyme.
Preheat your oven to 450, getting it nice and hot before making the salt crust.
You need a lot of salt for this recipe - 4 to 6 cups, depending on the size of your fish. Some recipes call for sea salt, which would be quite extravagant, but a coarse-grained Kosher salt is good and affordable. I don't recommend table salt. The salt is mixed with egg white and a little water to make the crust.
While I usually hate recipes that require separating eggs - it always seems wasteful to me if you need more of one part than the other. But I recently learned that you can save egg whites in the freezer, adding to the container each time you have an odd egg white left over. So I had three egg whites in the freezer already.
Some versions of this recipe call for whipping the egg whites to soft peaks. Others just mix them in as it is. I whisked them by hand till they were a little foamy, then worked them into the salt with the water. The mixture was the consistency of damp beach sand - if it feels like you can make sand castles, it's perfect.
Line a large baking pan with foil. Spread a 1/4" bed of salt for the fish, nestle them in, and then pack salt over them, just as if you were burying someone in sand at the beach. You don't have to cover the tails or all of the head.
Put the pan in the hot oven and bake for about 25 minutes for a one and a half pound fish; a little more time for a larger fish. If you're not sure, use a thermometer to check - the internal temperature should be between 135 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. You can poke it through the crust right behind the gills.
When it comes out, the crust is slightly brown and golden. Let it sit for about ten minutes, then you're ready to excavate.
Using the back of a heavy spoon, give the crust a sharp thwack. It should break into manageable chunks. Carefully lift it off, piece by piece. If crumbs of salt remain on the skin, you can remove them with a clean, dry pastry brush.
Once you've removed the crust covering the fish, gently pull the skin off. Then, using a broad spoon and fork, lift the filet meat out - going in the direction of the bones - and put it on a platter.
When you've removed all the flesh on that side, start at the tail end and gently pull the backbone up and out. Then remove the flesh below, taking it off the skin, taking care not to get it into the salt.
I think it would have been easier to work with if I'd baked the fish in individual pans, because you want to avoid getting too much salt into the meat, and that's tough with two fish. But it worked out fine. Yesterday, my friend Barbara took over after the spine came out so I could photograph the operation.
What you end up with is a platter of perfectly cooked, tender flesh, delicately flavored by the aromatic stuffing.
Barbara and I immediately fell upon the scraps in the pan, picking out little salty nuggets of flesh and popping them in our mouths. Barbara also went for the cheeks, prizing them out from the fish's head..
You can make a fancy sauce like beurre blanc, but it's great if you just squeeze on a little lemon juice and drizzle with a good fruity olive oil.