Sunday, May 2, 2010

Recipe: Whole Baked Fish

Baking a whole fish is supremely easy. It's easier than cooking a whole chicken. It's easier than cooking a whole cauliflower. It's easier than cooking almost anything. Making a salad is orders of magnitude more difficult. I wouldn't even call it "cooking," but for the fact there's an oven involved.

Whole baked fish is also super tasty. It's one of those rare triumphs in cooking where the reward in flavor seems utterly divorced from the effort required. It shouldn't be this easy to make something this good.

While we're often used to fillets and fish parts in America, going whole fish is very common in the Mediterranean and, I'm sure, many other places I've never visited. I've had whole fish in Italy and Spain and, most memorably, on Greek islands where tiny unnamed species not much bigger than bluegills are served on a warm plate, taking hours and liters of wine to pick through.

Whole Baked Fish Recipe

Have your fishmonger clean a whole fish, leaving the head on. Yes, leave it on. It makes a difference.

My favorite fish to bake whole these days is branzino. My fishmonger was out of it this week so I got bream instead, pictured above. To give you an idea on size, this one was a little over a pound before cleaning. It makes a light meal for two.

Heat the oven to 375. Cover a baking pan with a sheet of aluminum foil (it makes clean up easier).

Wash the fish out. Stuff it full of whatever herbs you have. There's parsley in this picture. Cilantro is also good. Any herb more intense than these, go easy. Slice some lemons and shove them in every orifice. 

Slather the fish in olive oil, lay it on the baking sheet, into the oven it goes. As it cooks, you can baste it once or twice with its juices. Or not—it won't change things much if you forget.

You can tell it's done when the flesh flakes after it's flicked with a fork. If it's undercooked it will be very wet, the flesh layers indistinct. Don't overcook it, that's criminal. Slightly overcooked will be moist but have a tacky, sticky texture in your mouth. Way overcooked will be dry and nearly tough. I baked this bream about 30 minutes.

Serve as is. I don't even add any salt. Just maybe another drizzle of olive oil—a good one, you'll taste it—a squeeze of fresh lemon. Deliver it to the table whole. Use a fork and knife to peel back the skin and gently remove the flesh.

Bream, ready to serve. 
In Greece, with fish smaller than this, you may eat the eyes.