The Washington Post
Turn on the oven
Cooking a fish can be as easy as turning on the oven
Cooking a fish actually can be pretty easy if you roast it whole.
A couple of months ago, my husband brought home a whole Chesapeake rockfish (a.k.a. striped bass) that was 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.
And yet, I’ve been predictable about how I cook fish at home. With the exception of holidays, in which 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 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 less than 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 pre-cut 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, it 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 near 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.
Have the fish cleaned, but leave the head and tail on. 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. Two that I like are garlic, ginger, cilantro, sesame oil and lime; or 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. However, if the fish is on the smaller side, 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 that pairs well with stronger-flavored fish, such as mackerel.