I have a very suburban, landlocked relationship to fish. The fish I've made in the past come in fillet form, perfectly clean, wrapped and ready to go. I've dabbled in sushi grade Tuna and spent one harrowing afternoon trying to hack the skin off a piece of Mahi Mahi, but the bulk of my non-shellfish seafood experience comes in the form of Catfish and Tilapia, nice, easy, and kinda boring. One Whole Foods sale flier later, however, and I decided to tackle whole Branzinos, otherwise known as Mediterranean Sea Bass. Well, I told myself I was going to learn to cook Italian, didn't I?
As part of my research I turned back to the Julia Child DVD I had rented last week, where she did an entire show about fish. Part of this show was to take the camera on location to a french fish market, where a skilled cooking professor demonstrated how to clean a fish in fancy ways. At one point they pulled all the organs out through the gills. On one fish they cut in such a way as to shove its own tail through its mouth (pictured, but I didn't do that.) It was kinda one of the grosser things I had ever seen. Really, all of the fish cleaning looked pretty gross. It was bloody, very bloody, and involved a lot of organ ripping. In shellfish, I am cold blooded about this sort of thing, but in a fish with fins, it was freaking me out. I was relieved to find that most nice fish mongers, including the ones at Whole Foods, will do this for you. Someday I will gather the courage to dissemble my own fish, and I promise to post a disgusting blog about it then. For the moment I just let the fish monger hit on me as he wielded a knife into my fish. Must be the designer boots.
There were a few themes that seemed to repeat as I researched these Euro fish. First, the principals of stuffing them with lemon and herbs. That was an easy idea, and economical as I was roasting a chicken this weekend as well, which involves the same ingredients. The second was the idea of packing it in salt. A lot of salt. Basically making a salt shell around the fish and baking it. I had never heard of this or seen it done, this is not a technique often used in home kitchens of suburbia where I grew up, but it definitely seemed interesting. The principal is to almost build a heat trap around the fish, so it can literally stew in its own juice, along with the lemon and herbs. The principal is not to make a crazy salty fish.
Once the thing is baked, the salt shell is cracked and brushed off the fish, and the skin peels off easily after that. Done right and you should only get mild salt flavoring, which seasons the fish nicely. The best tip I got in making sure this was done right was to cover the belly opening with tin foil, to keep the salt from seeping into the soft flesh. Apparently that can cause a gross amount of salty. Traditionally the entire fish is caked in salt, but the recipe I used called for laying them on parchment paper and only building the shell around the top half. I enjoyed this method, as it wasted less salt and was easier to control where all that salt was going. Has anyone ever tried the full encasing or perhaps made little fish snowmen? Tell me about it in the comments!
Salt-Baked Branzino for TwoAdapted from Gourmet Magazine (RIP)Ingredients:-3 Cups Kosher Salt-4 to 5 Large Egg Whites-2 1lb whole branzino, cleaned with head and tails intact-6 fresh parsley sprigs-4 fresh rosemary sprigs-2 garlic cloves, halved-4 lemon slices, halvedDirections:Preheat oven to 400 degrees.Place salt in a medium bowl and add egg whites one at a time, stirring, until the mixture looks like wet sand (the number will vary)Rinse fish and pat dry. (Check for any organs your fish monger might have missed. Ick.) Place fish on a parchment-line baking sheet and divide remaining ingredients between the cavities of fish. Cover the cavity with a strip of tinfoil.Firmly pat half of salt evenly over each fish to cover, leaving only the head and end of the tail exposed.Bake fish in the middle of oven until salt is just starting to turn golden at edges, 15 to 18 minutes. If your fish is heavier then 1 lb., adjust accordingly, giving it an extra 2 to 5 minutes depending on the size.Crack salt away from fish and discard. Use brush to get off any stray salt that scatters onto the fish. Peel back skin and carefully lift fish from the bones.
That "carefully lift fish from the bones" part I'm still getting the hang of. Despite what I feel was a rather impressive extricating of the spine and ribs (are they called ribs on a fish?) we still managed to get some tiny thin bones on our tongues, so devour with caution. The actual fish part, though, was delicious! It was very moist and well seasoned by the lemon and herbs which gave it a rustic but complex flavor. I'm not sure I'd ever eaten a sea bass before now, but I am a convert. I demanded and received accolades. I insisted on being toasted for my frugal fish victory. And meanwhile we devoured every edible part of the once whole fish.
Now if I find a coupon for a whole octopus we could really find out what I'm capable of...