There it is at the seafood market, a whole fish, gleaming fresh, eyes bulging, looking like it just flopped up from out of the ocean. It’s so gorgeous you have to buy it. Now the question is: What the heck are you supposed to do with it?
The answer is simple: Just about anything. There are few things easier to cook than a whole fish.
And not only is a whole fish more beautiful to serve than a fillet (once you get past that silly “Eek! It looks like a fish!” reaction -- what are you, in fifth grade?), it tastes better too. Just like any other meat cooked on the bone, fish cooked in the round is moister and more flavorful.
Even better, it’s incredibly flexible. You can use almost any cooking technique you can think of, and you’ll get a very different dish each time.
Probably the easiest is simply steaming it, in the Chinese fashion: Put the fish on a plate; sprinkle it with shredded ginger, green onions and a little soy sauce; put the plate in a steamer and cook. In 10 or 15 minutes, you’ll have a perfectly moist, beautifully fragrant dish.
No, wait, maybe it’s roasting: Stuff the cavity with herbs and lemon slices; put the fish on a baking sheet; scatter a few lemon slices over top and bake at 400 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. The skin will crisp slightly and the meat will pick up hints of the herbs and lemon.
Or you can simply grill it over a medium-hot fire or under the broiler and the only thing the fish needs to be complete is a light drizzling of flavored oil.
The list goes on: You can poach a whole fish in a pan of barely simmering, fragrant fish broth. You can even deep-fry it by dusting it with flour or cornstarch and submerging it in bubbling oil. (Use a slightly lower temperature of 350 degrees to avoid scorching the outside before the center is cooked through.)
The best whole fish
MOST of the whole fish you’ll find at the market belong to one of two fairly similar species, though this can get a little confusing because fishmongers have always felt perfectly comfortable calling fish by names that rightfully belong to other species.
The most popular whole fish at local markets is usually called New Zealand snapper or Tai snapper (the latter is not a misspelling -- tai is the Japanese word for this kind of fish). Though it is a very good fish, it is not truly a snapper; it is a porgy. Neither is it real Japanese tai. It’s a cousin, along with the fish the French call daurade. It is caught in the wild, mostly off New Zealand.
The other most commonly available whole fish is the variety that is alternately called loup de mer or branzino, depending on whether the market is feeling French or Italian that day. This fish, once hard to find in the United States, has become widely available now that it is farmed in several Mediterranean countries. (The wild is still available but only rarely and at elevated prices.)
From time to time, you will also find other whole fish, including wild striped bass. (Don’t mistake it for its farmed freshwater cousin, which often tastes as muddy as tilapia.) You can also still find the old favorite rockfish, though it is much scarcer than it used to be due to the closure of much of its fishery for conservation.
All of these fish have a sweet, mild flavor. Their flesh is firm and flaky -- at least compared with sole, which is soft and flaky, and shark and swordfish, which are firm and meaty.
And while these fish certainly are not the same, they are similar enough that they can be used interchangeably in recipes -- like substituting lime for lemon, the results will be different, but they will be good.
Cooking whole fish is not only fast, it’s surprisingly easy.
What about all that nasty scaling and gutting? Forget about them: Any store that sells whole fish will also do most of the advance preparation for you as well. Do not pass up this service. There are few tasks that will wreck a kitchen faster than scaling fish -- the scales are transparent when wet and will stick like glue after they’ve dried.
And though gutting a fish is something that all cooks should do a time or two to familiarize themselves more thoroughly with its anatomy, that’s a chore that can be safely left to the professionals most of the time too.
This leaves you with only a little bit of neatening up when you get home -- basically just removing the fins. The best tool for this is a sturdy pair of poultry shears. Trim the fins behind the gills and along the back and the two pairs underneath. Trimming the tail is optional, though it is sometimes necessary for the fish to fit in the pan. Most good fishmongers will even do all of this too.
The only thing left is to score the skin lightly along the midsection on both sides about every 2 inches. Use a sharp knife; the cut should just break the skin and the first layer of flesh, but not go to the bone. This helps the heat penetrate to the center of the fish.
OK, now that the requisite mechanics are out of the way, how are you going to cook that fish?
The most important choice you have to make when thinking about preparing fish is whether you want to use dry heat, which will firm the flesh and crisp the skin, or moist heat, which will turn the flesh silky and leave the skin moist.
You then need to think about whether you want to show off the natural flavor of the fish, or introduce other ingredients that offer a little more complexity.
Broiling and steaming may result in opposite effects in terms of texture, but they share an affinity for best showing off a fish’s subtle natural flavor.
Try steaming a fish Chinese-style and, just before it’s done, burying it in a mound of sweet green pea shoots moistened with just a hint of sesame oil. The pea shoots cook just long enough to brighten into a vivid green. The color and flavor are lovely complements to the fish.
Or broil it and serve it simply with a drizzle of good olive oil and a dash of sea salt. That’s delicious, but it’s amazing how just a little bit of basil-flavored olive oil will emphasize the herbal flavors of the fish. Salting the fish beforehand firms the flesh and seasons it through.
Braising also keeps the fish extremely moist and gives you the opportunity to add other flavors. Add just enough liquid to come to come barely halfway up the fish -- with the cooking juices it’ll be practically covered by the time it’s done. For a Provencal braise, lay the fish on a bed of sliced tomatoes and black olives, and pour over it a quick broth made from herbs, white wine and water. When it emerges from the oven 45 minutes to an hour later, you’ll have a lovely fish stew bursting with a complex perfume.
Pan-roasting is a combination of sauteing and roasting that crisps the skin but allows the center to cook more gently. Wrapping the fish in prosciutto allows you to add another layer of texture and is even better when you loosely stuff the fish with sauteed mushrooms. The sweet pork funkiness of the crisped ham is a perfect foil for the moist, mild fish.
Roasting works much the same way but with less intense heat, allowing you to incorporate a few more ingredients. You might stuff the fish with a sprig of rosemary and lemon slices and cook it on a bed of herb-scented fingerling potatoes. It’s a full meal that looks impressive but takes only a few minutes of work.
And you were wondering what you can do with a whole fish.
Weigh the fish. Measure the salt: For every pound of fish allow a scant 1 tablespoon coarse salt or 2 teaspoons fine salt. Rub the fish with the salt on both sides and in the cavity and set aside on a plate for 30 to 60 minutes.
To prepare basil oil, blanch the leaves in rapidly boiling salted water just until they wilt, about 15 seconds. Remove immediately and place in an ice water bath to stop cooking. Squeeze the basil dry and chop coarsely.
Place the basil in a blender and add just enough oil to cover. Puree until finely chopped and then with the motor running, add the remainder of the olive oil through the feed tube on the top. Add salt to taste, about one-fourth teaspoon.
When the basil mixture is perfectly smooth, pass it through a fine mesh strainer into a measuring cup or bowl. You can stir the mixture gently with a rubber spatula to make it flow a little faster, but be careful not to press -- that will cloud the oil. You will have 3/4 cup to 1 cup of basil oil, which will keep in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for about 1 week.
Heat the grill or broiler. If using a broiler, line the broiler pan with foil and brush with 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil. Rinse fish under running water and pat dry with paper towels. Rub lightly with 1 tablespoon olive oil and grill over moderately high heat or broil about 5 inches from the flame until a knife penetrates the flesh and the top fillet begins to lift easily, about 5 to 7 minutes, depending on size of fish. Turn and continue cooking until done, about 5 to 7 minutes more.
Remove the fish to a platter and let it stand briefly. Lift off the fillets and drizzle them each with about 1 tablespoon of basil oil.
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