Whole roasted fish is always a festive and impressive main course. It’s success depends entirely on the freshness of the fish and the hand of the cook, in de-boning and seasoning the finished dish properly.
It seems that fish mongers are always excited when customers ask for whole fish. They invariably rush to the cooler and pull out their freshest, most beautiful specimens with great pride. For tonight’s meal, I asked my fish monger for a local striped bass, or anything else that was freshly caught and freshly delivered. It’s very easy to pick out a whole fish–it must be shiny, not slimy; the eyes must be clear, not cloudy. Lift the gills and the insides should be bright red and glistening. Last but not least, smell it up close–it should smell clean and not fishy. Today’s catch passed all of these criteria with flying colors.
I kept the head and tail on the fish, thinking I’d much rather present my fish intact, but the fish was a bit too long for my roasting pan and I didn’t want the head and tail hanging over the edge too far, so I ultimately opted to remove the head and tail myself at home.
Preparation of the fish is extremely simple–lift up the flap of flesh that covers the cavity and sprinkle heavily with salt, then insert some herbs and/or lemon slices.
These will help perfume the meat from the inside out. In addition, sprinkle the outside of the fish heavily with salt and rub with olive oil.
Tie the fish crosswise with string to keep it in a tight bundle and hold the cavity shut.
Lay the fish over some herbs (I used thyme sprigs) in a roasting pan and place in a preheated 500-degree oven.
Roast, undisturbed, for a half-hour to 45 minutes, depending on the size of your fish and the strength of your oven. The fish I made was exactly 10 pounds and took about 40 minutes to cook through. Pierce the skin with a knife and try to look as far into the middle of the flesh as possible–the meat should be white but still juicy. You don’t want raw meat in the middle, nor do you want to overcook the meat, although in this case, overcooking is preferable to undercooking, since it won’t filet easily if undercooked.
Once the fish comes out of the oven, allow it to rest for about 10 minutes.
To present the fish, remove the string, lift the skin and set aside, working with a large fork and spoon. Insert the spoon along the backbone area of the and run it down the length of the skeleton, scraping the meat off one side of the skeleton, and piling it onto your heated serving plate.
Continue scraping and lifting off sections of meat and spreading on a platter. After one side of the fish has been filleted, flip the carcass and repeat with the other side.
Once you’ve gotten most of the meat off the bone, season aggressively with salt, black pepper and olive oil. We had the added bonus of having a bottle of olive oil infused with meyer lemon–absolutely fabulous. You might also sprinkle with some of the fresh herbs that went into the cavity (thyme, in my case). Serve as quickly as possible.
Along with the fish, we had risotto with arugula and lemon, its aggressively peppery and lemony flavor complemented the fish beautifully.
In addition, we had sauteed zucchini with leeks and a touch of chopped tomato. All of these flavors blended beautifully with one another on the plate and made for a light, fresh end-of-summer celebration.