There’s a certain amount of risk involved in cooking. Many times, I spend all day prepping for a recipe that’s a total clunker. I’ve shelled out lots of cash on “novelty” ingredients that end up being nothing special. And I’ve definitely made my share of rookie mistakes that, if I were the type of normal cook that makes something more than once, probably wouldn’t happen nearly as often. Yes, D thinks I’m crazy. She’ll never understand why I’d pass up chocolate chip cookies to try my hand at chocolate-dipped hazelnut shortbread. Or why, instead of making my tried and true recipe for lemon curd, I insist on blowing 2 whole meyer lemons on a whole-lemon tart that was so saccharine, so unpleasantly textured, I nearly threw it out. But such is the life of a blogger: constantly in search of the next internet-worthy recipe, making plenty of duds along the way.
So imagine my delight when my hard work actually paid off. This wasn’t just any old success. On the contrary: it was a complete and total knockout.
I’ve been wanting to roast a whole fish for quite some time now. I’d been told it wasn’t particularly difficult, but pfff — it’s a whole fish! With a tail! And eyeballs! And it’s a whole fish. You get the point. But after a rough week at work, I decided hell! If other people can do it, why can’t I? And thus began the most fearless, the most exciting, and by far the most successful adventure I’ve ever had in my kitchen.
I called my fishmonger midweek and reserved a 6.5-pound red snapper. When I came to pick it up, I took a look — what a beaut! — and asked him to scale and gut it for me. “You aren’t, by any chance, cooking this in salt, are you?” He asked. Why yes, I was, I said. “Glad I asked: don’t scale the fish. If you scale it, the salt leaches in and renders the fish inedibly salty. Scales protect your dinner.” See why I love my fishmonger?
I picked it up and stuck it in my bag along with its accompanying bed of ice. I felt like I had a pet in tow. So did my officemate. When fishie and I got home, I cleared out a whole shelf in the fridge, stuck him in there to stay cool, and pulled out my measuring tape. My young person’s apartment has a relatively small oven, and I didn’t actually have a baking sheet large enough to fit the fish. Instead, I cobbled together a baking surface out of two smaller pans. I overlapped the two pans in the exact length I needed to fit the snapper, and guess what? That length was also exactly the width of my oven. Couldn’t have worked out more perfectly.
I mixed some salt with… wait. “Some salt” really doesn’t do it justice. I mixed SIX POUNDS of salt with a bunch of egg whites to form a sort of cakey mix that would adhere to the fish. I poured a third of it down on the pans, laid the fish on top, and proceeded to cover that fish with enough salt to clear last month’s blizzard, eeeasy.
I left the fish in the fridge for a few hours until I was ready to cook it. About 1.5 hours before dinner, I preheated the oven to 450. I carefully tucked the two pans, with their fish-shaped salt cake, into the hot oven and sat on my hands for an hour crossing my fingers that everything would cook, that the fish wouldn’t explode, and that it might — *gulp!* — even wind up tasty.
Our guests that night were adventurous types, happy to be my guinea pigs as I played around in the kitchen. And I’m proud to say I didn’t let’em down. The fish, seasoned with absolutely nothing other than that salt crust, was soft and tender, luscious and buttery, an absolute pleasure to eat. The rest of the meal wasn’t too shabby either, but that’s a story for another time. It all starts with this recipe, simple enough to let the fish flavor sing, fussy enough to make your guests feel special. It can be scaled up or down; quantities and cooking times are below. If you’re like me, and you’ve always wondered how salt-crust roasting is even possible, throw caution to the wind. After all, that’s what cooking is all about.
Whole Fish Roasted in Salt Crust
adapted from a recipe on Food52
1 whole fish, gutted but NOT scaled, head and tail intact
1 pound salt for every pound fish
1 egg white for every 1.5 pounds salt/fish, roughly
lemon and/or parsley for serving, optional and really unnecessary
Preheat oven to 450.
Mix salt and egg whites until salt is cakey.
Pour 1/3 of salt down on baking tray to cover the whole area where the fish will be. Lay the fish down overtop, and pour and cake salt onto sides and top of fish to completely cover. If you don’t have enough salt, leave the tail uncovered — that’s preferable to the head or the sides.
For a small (2-3 pound) fish, bake 20-30 minutes. For a 5 pound fish, 40-45. For a 6.5 pound doozie like mine, give it about 60 minutes.
Remove fish from oven and let rest 10 minutes. Take a hammer or a heavy metal spoon and tap crust in several places to break up. Remove crust and discard.
Slice along the jawline of the fish, and peel back the skin. It should come off pretty effortlessly. Use a knife and spatula to scoop out that first filet. Then remove the backbone, and take out the second filet. Please, whatever you do, don’t forget to scoop out those precious cheeks — both above the jawline, next to the (eeek!) eye, and below the jaw just above that initial spot where you cut. It’s the sweetest, most succulent piece of the whole fish.
“Serve immediately” goes without saying, right?
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Who’s your monger? Black Salt or Salt River, perchance?
For all you DC folks: I should have given this shout-out initially, but my fishmonger is Cannon’s on 31st and M. Blacksalt is also excellent and I go there from time to time, but it’s a shlep for me. Never been to Salt River — is that in VA?
WOW! This is gorgeous. What a presentation! The thing that scares me about this is the filetting – what if I accidentally feed someone a bone and they choke?! What if I poke the eyeball in my haste and eye juice goes everywhere? Anyway, I think this is awesome, and I think you’re very brave.
The bones are quite large: we found very few pin bones, and the fish really is so soft that the bones become apparent and you can easily eat around them.
Salt River Lobster is Fridays at the little parking lot on Old Georgetown Road across from NIH, and Saturday mornings (I know . . . ) at the Kensington farmers’ market. Almost as good as Black Salt quality-wise; significantly lower prices. http://salt-river-lobster.com/Salt_River_Lobster.html — but the website doesn’t include all their offerings.