Fish really does make a fabulous dinner. It's healthy, cooks quickly and is a great canvas for fresh herbs and exotic flavors. Don’t let whole fish intimidate you. It’s easier to cook than a roasted chicken, won't stink up the house like searing fish filets and is one of the most impressive family-style dinners you’ll ever serve. I know it can be tricky to eat, but the method my grandma taught me when I was a little girl (see "Dig In" below) is easy and always works.
There are tons of techniques people use to roast fish, from burying them in salt to complex fast-sear and slow-bake combos. But my favorite technique is really just a one-pot meal: Cooked in a cast iron skillet with vegetables underneath, acting as a rack. And it’s versatile; you can go with any flavor combination that fits your mood (or that fits what you’ve got on hand your refrigerator!). Here it is, step by step:
Buy a really fresh fish
Finding fish that’s über-fresh is key. The easiest way is to sniff around; fresh fish don’t smell “fishy” at all. They should smell salty and sweet, like the sea. Look for clear, vibrant eyes, bright red gills, and flesh that feels firm, bouncing right back when you press it. For roasting, I like lean, white fish like snapper, bass or perch. A 2-3 pounder will comfortably serve two people, or more with other sides. Ask the fishmonger to scale, gut and clean the fish. If you can’t deal with a fish head on the table, ask the butcher to remove it. (But then you’re losing the finest morsels: the tiny, plump, velvety cheeks.) Ideally, buy fish the same day you’re cooking it. Otherwise, store it in the fridge for one to two days in the butcher paper, preferably on ice. If you’re really serious, store it upright, as though it were swimming; that’s how Thomas Keller taught me.
Prep the oven and vegetables
Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees. You want a hot oven to quickly cook the fish and to get caramelization on the vegetables. While the oven is heating, cut the vegetables into ¼” or ½” slices (depending on how firm you want them to be after cooking), or if you’re using a vegetable that’s long and skinny, like carrots, quarter them lengthwise. You want enough vegetables to generously cover the bottom of your pan, but not have it mounding up on you.
Prep the fish
Remove the fish from the refrigerator and rinse well in the sink under very cold running water. Pat it dry with paper towels. Make three even 2” cuts from back to belly on each side of the fish, about ½” deep. Liberally salt and pepper the cavity of the fish and both sides. Stuff the cavity of the fish with lots of herbs, citrus, vegetables, whatever. It’s okay if the stuffing is busting out of the fish—it not only lends aroma and flavor, stuffing creates a nice, regular shape so that the fish roasts evenly. Keep in mind, though, the stuffing will still be mostly raw when the fish is done, so be careful chomping into that clove of garlic!
Start in the skillet
Put the skillet on the stove over medium heat. Add a glug of oil. When hot, cover the bottom of the skillet with the prepared sliced vegetables and season with a sprinkling of salt. Cook until the sizzling gets intense and you start to see a little bit of browning. Turn the heat off. Carefully lay the entire stuffed fish over the vegetables. The head and tail of the fish might peek over the side of the pan—that’s okay. If it makes you nervous, you can transfer the seared vegetables to a sheet tray and you can lay the fish over the vegetables on the tray. Drizzle with about one tablespoon of olive oil, and pop the entire lot in the oven. (But be careful. The skillet is hot.)
Finish in the Oven
Cook in the oven for about 10-12 minutes per pound. Keep your eye on it. Since fish are different sizes and thicknesses, you’ve got to check it and make the call, starting at, say, 8 minutes per pound. Check where you made the slits in the flesh; the fish is done when the meat comes off the bones and the skin starts peeling away. When the fish is ready, pour about ¼ cup of wine, stock, water, or whatever liquid you like in the skillet and cook in the oven for two more minutes. Now you’ve made a lovely little sauce. Serve the entire skillet at the table with a side bowl for bones and such.
Gently pluck off the fins. If you want to remove the skin, do so. Using a large spoon and a fork, gently take meat from the top side of the fish. Eat slowly since there may be small bones; this is partly why I love sharing a whole fish with family and friends: You just can’t wolf it down, and your dinner and conversation naturally linger. When you’ve eaten everything on the first side, get to the meat on the bottom filet by grasping the tail and carefully pulling up the backbone from the meat. Don’t turn the fish over to get to the bottom filet; many believe turning a fish over will result in a fisherman’s boat doing the same.
I wasn’t kidding when I said you could use this cooking technique with any flavor profile you like. Try some of these:
Orange, Fennel and Olive – Put slices of fennel bulb in the skillet. Stuff the fish with garlic cloves, fennel fronds, fresh thyme and orange slices. Finish with ouzo along with a handful of pitted black olives to make the sauce.
Bourbon Pecan – Lay apple slices and sticks of celery in the skillet. Stuff the fish with lemon, thyme and garlic. Finish with ¼ cup of bourbon mixed with ¼ cup of chicken stock and a sprinkling of chopped pecans.
Carrot Curry – Pile equal parts carrot sticks and onion slices into the skillet. Top with a fish stuffed with fresh ginger, garlic cloves, a cinnamon stick and basil. When nearly cooked, pour ½ cup of coconut milk, mixed with 1 tablespoon of garam masala in the pan to make a sauce.
Paris Bistro (pictured) – Fill the bottom of the skillet with lots of green beans. Stuff the fish with garlic cloves, shallots, chives, thyme and rosemary. Finish with ¼ cup of white wine, freshly chopped parsley and a few pats of good butter.
Garlic, Ginger and Soy Sauce– Halve baby bok choy to line the skillet. Chives, garlic, sliced fresh ginger to stuff. Drizzle with soy sauce and chili oil before roasting. Finish with ¼ cup of chicken stock mixed with ¼ cup of rice wine vinegar and 2 tablespoons of fish sauce.
Herbs and Honey – Mound lots of roughly chopped hearty greens in the skillet (like kale and swiss chard). Stuff the fish with thyme, rosemary, bay leaves and onion. Drizzle a spoonful of honey over the fish before cooking. Make sauce with chicken stock mixed with a couple hefty splashes of Worcestershire and 1 teaspoon of paprika.
Peanut and Roasted Peppers – Julienne a variety of peppers like poblanos, jalapeños and bell peppers to lay in the skillet. Use cilantro, garlic cloves, and onions for stuffing. Drizzle peanut oil instead of olive oil over the fish before cooking. Pour chicken stock to make the sauce and finished with chopped peanuts.
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