A couple of months ago, my husband brought home a whole Chesapeake rockfish (aka striped bass) that had been on sale at Whole Foods Market. I unwrapped it and eyed it skeptically; it eyed me back, as if daring me to do it culinary justice.
I am not squeamish about seafood. I’ve picked my way through bushels of steamed blue crabs. On summer trips to Italy’s Adriatic coast, where my family is from, I have plowed through piles of fried whole baby cuttlefish with their tiny tentacles, platters of marinated raw anchovies and bowls of seafood stew with the threadlike antennae and beady black eyes of small crustaceans peering out from saucy broth.
Yet I’ve been predictable about how I cook fish at home. With the exception of holidays, when I channel my mother and cook an Italian seafood feast, I have tended to stick to the usual suspects. Like so many, I am lured in by the implied ease of peeled and deveined shrimp, of tidy blocks of salmon fillets and compact triangles of tuna or swordfish steaks in display cases.
The rockfish presented an opportunity to get out of my rut. The fish had already been scaled and gutted, but its head, tail and fins were still attached. I laid it on a parchment-lined baking sheet, rubbed it inside and out with olive oil, and stuffed its cavity with thinly sliced garlic, a handful of leggy thyme and parsley sprigs from my neglected garden, and a stalk of fennel fronds I had in my fridge. I tucked in a few thin slices of lemon. I cut three deep slits along the length of the fish and tucked half-wheels of lemon into those, too. I seasoned it with salt and pepper, then roasted it in a 400-degree oven. It was done in under 30 minutes.
After carving it – an easier and more enjoyable task than you might think – I squeezed a little lemon on the fillets and drizzled them with a few drops of good olive oil. The meat was firm and sweet – and much tastier than the precut steaks and fillets I’d become used to cooking. This makes sense: Fish bones impart flavor, while the skin keeps the flesh beneath moist as it roasts. Since then I have roasted whole snapper, branzino, pompano and mackerel, switching up the herbs and seasonings but sticking to my basic method. I’ve served it hot and, in recent sweltering weather, cold with a sauce on the side. Either way, roasting is now my favorite method for preparing fish. It is beautifully forgiving: Even if you leave it to roast a little longer than it should, maybe to crisp up the skin, the fish stays moist.
If you’ve been bypassing the whole-fish display at your supermarket seafood department or fish store - the idea of choosing and cooking a whole fish is intimidating - do yourself a favor and stop next time and pick one out. You won’t be disappointed.
Here are some guidelines to get you started:
Find a fish purveyor you like and trust, and look for sustainable choices. Many retailers, large and small, now stock fish and seafood that has been wild-caught or farmed responsibly. The best choice of fish may not always be local, depending on the season, so be sure to ask. When in doubt, consult an independent source such as Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.
Look for signs of freshness. The most overt sign is the eye, which should be plump and clear, or nearly clear. The fish should be bright and shiny, with moist, slippery skin and no dry patches. Ask to (gently) poke the fish; the flesh should be firm and bounce back. Take a peek at the gills, which should be bright, glistening red. Dark gills (brown or the color of dried blood) mean the fish is past its prime. Fresh fish smells faintly of the place from which it came, whether ocean, sea, lake or brook. It should not have a strong odor.
Ask the fishmonger to scale and gut the fish, and to remove the gills, which can impart a bitter flavor. Leave the head and tail on, for flavor as well as aesthetics. Even if you are not entertaining, a whole roasted fish is impressive to behold.
Keep it simple, but choose vibrant flavors. Try combinations beyond lemon and fresh herbs. Here are two I like:
Garlic, ginger, cilantro, sesame oil and lime.
Red onion, oregano, mint, capers and lemon.
Roast on a rimmed baking sheet or in a baking dish. I use a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper. If the fish is on the smaller side, however, you can use an oiled, oven-safe baking dish. Roasting temperatures can range from 350 to 500 degrees. I find 400 allows the skin to crisp nicely while keeping the flesh moist. Figure on 10 to 15 minutes per pound.
Debone and fillet the fish before serving. This sounds daunting but is easy and, in fact, a satisfying skill to master. Follow the instructions in the basic recipe for separating the head and tail from the body and for separating the fillets from the skeleton. Be sure to remove any bones as you go. Fish bones may give the cooked fish a better flavor, but they are a serious choking hazard. Serve the fish hot, or refrigerate it until thoroughly chilled and serve it cold.
Add a finishing touch
A squeeze of lemon juice, a splash of good olive oil and a sprinkle of salt is a good starting place. But consider these other choices:
Herb compound butter: Mix softened butter and minced herbs, such as basil, cilantro or parsley, with a squeeze of citrus; roll into a log and chill, then slice and top cooked fish.
Soy dipping sauce: Whisk soy sauce, sesame oil, mirin (rice wine) and a few drops of chile oil; drizzle over fish.
Pesto: Dollop a few spoonfuls of fresh basil pesto on the fish right before serving to preserve its green color.
Salsa verde: This Italian green sauce, typically made with parsley, anchovies and capers, goes beautifully with fish.
Aioli: This emulsified mixture of garlic, olive oil and egg is a classic accompaniment to fish (especially cold fish).
Tapenade: An assertive puree of olives, anchovies, garlic and herbs, tapenade pairs well with stronger-flavored fish such as mackerel.
Roasted Whole Fish
Yield: 4 servings
Once you learn how to fillet a whole roasted fish, you just might be hooked. Why roast with the head on? Because there is good meat around the collarbone and in the cheeks. It looks dramatic (even if you end up filleting the fish). And it’s simply easier to remove the head after the fish is cooked; it comes off with the skeleton.
Fish can vary widely in size and in flavor. Choose one (or two) that will fit on a standard baking sheet. Rockfish, snapper and branzino have firm, sweet, mild-tasting flesh, while oilier silver fish such as mackerel and pompano have a buttery, more assertive flavor.
It may help to have an instant-read thermometer and a thin fish spatula.
One 2- to 3-pound whole fish, such as rockfish (Maryland striped bass) or snapper; or two smaller fish, such as branzino, scaled, gutted and gills removed (with head, tail, fins left on)
About 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or more as needed
Freshly ground black pepper
1 clove garlic, minced or sliced paper-thin
Large handful of mixed fresh herb sprigs, such as marjoram, parsley, oregano, thyme, fennel fronds and/or dill
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil.
Place the fish on a cutting board, and pat the cavity dry with paper towels. Use a sharp knife to cut three deep (to the bone), diagonal slits on both sides of the fish. Rub the inside and outside of the fish with 2 tablespoons of the oil, then season with salt and pepper. Transfer to the baking sheet.
Sprinkle the garlic into the cavity of the fish and stuff in a handful of the herb sprigs, reserving some for plating. Slice half of the lemon into thin rounds. Place 3 rounds inside the cavity. Insert the remaining rounds into the three slits on the side of the fish facing up; you may have to cut the rounds into half-wheels to fit them.
Roast the fish, uncovered (middle rack), until the flesh is just firm and flaky, for 20 to 25 minutes for a 2-pound fish, or until its interior temperature registers between 130 and 135 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Let it rest for 5 minutes.
Now comes the fun part: carving the fish. Have a clean serving plate at the ready. First, remove the pin bones along the back of the fish by cutting away the dorsal fin - follow the line of the fish’s back from just below the head to the tail and scrape away the seam of fin and bones. (Tweezers are a good tool for removing pin bones.)
Next, separate the head and collarbone from the top fillet, following the natural line where they meet and cutting about halfway through the fish. Separate the top fillet from the tail in the same way. If you want to leave the top fillet whole, slide a long spatula (there’s a reason those flimsy metal fish spatulas exist) under the top fillet to separate the meat from the spine. Carefully flip the fillet onto the serving platter so that it is skin-side down.
Alternatively, cut the top fillet in half lengthwise, slicing down the length of the fish with a knife to separate the dorsal meat from the belly meat. Then flip each long piece of fillet carefully onto the serving plate so that both pieces are skin-sides down. Remove any pin bones along the way as you work.
Starting at the tail, gently pull up and remove the fish’s skeleton. The head should come off with it. Scrape away the garlic, herbs and lemon slices and remove any bones from the bottom fillet. Cut that fillet in half lengthwise, if you like, then transfer the pieces, skin-sides down, to the serving platter.
Drizzle a little oil over the fillets, and squeeze the reserved lemon half over them. Garnish the platter with reserved herb sprigs, and serve.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 4): 170 calories, 22 g protein, 0 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 340 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar