Baking whole fish easier, tastier than steaming it
The Chinese like to feature whole steamed fish on the menu of their New Year’s feasts. Said to signify togetherness, abundance and long life, it’s a dish with symbolism that is as important as taste. Indeed, you’re supposed to leave the bones, head and tail intact, a way to help ensure that the new year will be a winner from beginning to end.
When buying fish, many Western cooks tend to opt for the ease of fillets. The prospect of buying, prepping and deboning a whole fish might seem not just novel, but also daunting.
So here I propose baking your whole fish rather than steaming it, and wrapping it in foil to keep it moist. It’s much easier to cook it this way. It also has the added benefit of creating an instant sauce.
But let’s start at the beginning. You’re at the store checking out the fish on display. How can you tell if a whole fish is fresh? Its eyes should be clear, not cloudy, and its gills should be brightly colored, red or pink.
Once you’ve picked your winner, ask the fishmonger to clean it for you. He’ ll clip off the gills, scrape off the scales and remove the guts. If you don’t plan to head home right away, ask for a bag of ice to place next to the fish, which will keep it cold.
Baked whole fish for Chinese New Year
Can’t find 1- to 1 1/2-pound whole fish? Buy three smaller ones (about 2/3 to 3/4 pound each) and reduce the cooking time to about 15 minutes.
Start to finish: 1 hour (30 minutes active)
Servings: 4 Two 1- to 1 1/2-pound whole striped bass, branzino or trout, gutted, scaled and gills removed 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced 2-inch chunk fresh ginger, peeled and cut into matchsticks
3 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar 1 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil 2 to 4 tablespoons serrano or jalapeno chilies, with seeds and ribs
4 scallions, white and green parts, cut into thin strips
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro, leaves and stems
Heat the oven to 400 F. Line a shallow baking dish large enough to hold fish with foil.
Lay both fish on the counter. Working in 1- to 2-inch intervals, use a sharp knife to slash both sides of each fish perpendicular to the backbone (a 20-degree angle down the rib cage). Transfer the fish to the prepared baking dish.
In a small bowl, combine the garlic, ginger, soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, chilies, scallions and cilantro. Stuff some of the mixture into each slash on the fish, as well as into the cavity (most of the seasoning should go in the slashes). Cover the pan with foil and let the fish sit at room temperature for 20 minutes.
Then bake the fish on the oven's middle shelf for 20 to 24 minutes, or until the fish is just cooked through (you can pierce it easily with a knife).
To serve, use a small knife to gently scrape off the skin, then use a spoon to lift off the fillets (they will come up in chunks), and transfer one to each of 4 serving plates. Pour some of the juices from the pan over each portion.
Nutrition information per serving: 270 calories; 110 calories from fat (41 percent of total calories); 13g fat (3 g saturated; 0g trans fats); 165mg cholesterol; 550mg sodium; 4g carbohydrate; 1g fiber; 1g sugar; 35g protein.
Sara Moulton is host of US public television’s Sara’s Weeknight Meals. Her latest cookbook is Home Cooking 101.
The baked whole fish from a recipe by Sara Moulton.