Let’s start the new year of food off big. More specifically, with a big old fish. Shall we? I have always wanted to cook a whole fish, but it’s a daunting prospect. It has eyes. And creepy little fish teeth! Yet, it also has incredible flavor, economic advantages, and the power to make a home cook feel pretty badass. And the promise of badassery is enough to knock down my inhibitions, apparently. Hence, today I share with you my first foray into the world of serious fish.
Research. Step one is printing out one of these nerdy little guides from Monterey Bay Aquarium and busting it out of your wallet at the fish counter. Or you could memorize it, I suppose, and work it into regular conversations for extra nerd factor. Your call. But do prioritize buying ocean-friendly fish. There’s a pretty big variety that are deemed among the “best choices” for each region, so this shouldn’t be a hindrance. The bigger issue may be finding a fish vendor that can share enough information about the fish to help you make an informed choice. Sometimes seafood signage can be a bit cryptic.
Next, take a whiff. The fish should not smell fishy. It should smell like a sweet ocean breeze. Or like nothing at all. The brook trout that I ended up selecting gave off just a faint memory of saltwater. Your fish should be shiny and opalescent. Its eyes should be clear, not cloudy. Ask the fishmonger (officially the first time I’ve ever used this word in print) to remove the scales and guts but leave everything else. My 1.5 pound fish cost about $12 and served two large appetites.
Now that you have your fish, it’s time to flavor it. This can be as simple as olive oil, salt, and pepper, or as complicated as your imagination allows. I recommend somewhere in between. By removing the guts, the fishmonger will present to you a sliced open fish, not quite butterflied, with a nice space in which to wedge seasonings. I stuffed my trout with garlic, lemon, thyme, olive oil, salt, and pepper, and it was stunning. Impeccable. The only thing I would do differently next time is to add more lemon, because the pieces that were nestled up against the lemon in the oven were remarkable.
The actual roasting couldn’t be simpler. After, at the very least, brushing the fish with olive oil and seasoning liberally with salt and pepper, place the fish on a baking sheet or a roasting pan and bake for about 20 minutes. No turning, no flipping, no fuss.
The most overwhelming part of this whole process just may be eating the damn thing. Not as bad as lobster, but not as straightforward as a salmon fillet. Don’t fret: it’s easier than it may appear, especially if you’re eating among friends. If you’ve cooked it properly, the fish will flake apart when you dig into it. You can try any tool you desire, but trying to fillet a cooked fish is a surefire setup for failure. It just falls apart–and that’s a good sign! Just not great for attractive portioning. The better method? Pull back the skin, grab a fork and go to town. Dig into the flesh gently and pull away the meat. The bones may vary in size from teeny to pretty big, so just watch out for the smaller ones that may be hiding. If you approach it delicately, the meat will flake off the bones, which will stay attached to the spine. As I said, not elegant, but great among friends. Melissa Clark of the New York Times has a wonderful article about roasting a fish, and I picked up the “just do it” eating approach from her helpful video.
We served our fish with a tangy, spicy tomato salad, which was lovely and bright against the mild fish. Roasted winter veggies would be another option for a more seasonal side dish, and make sure you have bread to sop up any juices or olive oil. I’m already planning my next dinner party, simply so I can serve this dish. Since you can roast multiple fishes at once, this meal has the convenience of a casserole, and the added benefit of appearing like the work of a Mediterranean expert.
A new favorite protein and a belated resolution have arrived.
Roasted Whole Fish
1 whole trout or striped bass or similar fish, about 1.5 pounds for 2 people
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 lemon, sliced into thin rounds
A few sprigs of thyme, oregano, or marjoram
Freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 450°F.
- Wipe your fish with a wet paper towel to clean it off. Brush the outside and the inside with olive oil (about 2 tbsp), and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper, both inside and out. Stuff the inside of the fish with the garlic, lemon (as much of it as will fit), and the herbs.
- Place the fish on a baking sheet or roasting pan and bake for about 20 minutes, until a sharp knife cuts cleanly through the skin and the flesh is opaque.
- Transfer the fish to a platter and serve, with forks. Plates optional.