Think about the last time you cooked fish for a client. Was it a salmon filet or steak? Perhaps a piece of swordfish or tuna? When you bought it was it already wrapped in plastic on a Styrofoam tray accompanied by a sad little lemon slice?

If that’s the case, wow, are you and your clients are missing out because cooking a whole fish—or cooking a fish whole—can lead to richer flavors and, let’s face it, less waste.

Now no one’s expecting you to purchase a whole tuna or swordfish. In fact, when it comes to sustainability, buying the smaller fish species is actually a better idea since there are usually just more of them. We’re talking anything from sardines and sand dabs to trout and rockfish and snapper.

Cooking a whole fish can be as easy as stuffing it with aromatics, then encasing and baking it in salt. It makes for a fun meal for dinner parties, allowing clients to dig out the juicy pieces and enjoy parts of the fish that have great flavor, like the cheeks and collars.

It’s also less expensive per pound because you, not the store, are the labor. And, importantly, it’s a sustainable way to eat because you’re utilizing all of the fish.

It’s certainly how I grew up eating. One of my dad’s favorite meals to prepare was rainbow trout, which he would clean, dredge in flour, and then sauté until the skin was crispy and the flesh an opaque white. He taught my siblings and me how to filet the fish and remove the skeleton so we wouldn’t choke. His other favorite fish dish, still a treat, is preparing sand dabs, which are tiny delicate flatfish that he cleaned, then also pan fried. At those meals, eating was more than just cutting up food and popping bites in the mouth. It was an adventure and required both patience and some skill. It made the otherwise routine family dinner fun!

My friend and San Diego chef Andrew Spurgin takes cooking a whole fish up a few notches. His salt-encrusted fish is easy to make and creates a presentation worthy of a dinner party. Basically, you need a couple of boxes of kosher salt as well as egg whites, which are gently beaten and spread on the fish to allow the salt to adhere to it. Depending on the flavor profile you’re after, you need herbs, citrus, and spices for stuffing the cavity. And you’ll want to make a dipping sauce for the fish once it’s emerged from the salt. And that fish, released from its salt coffin, will be some of the moistest, most flavorful fish you’ve ever enjoyed.

That’s cooking a fish whole. But you can also cook a whole fish and break it down yourself, then cook up individual pieces. It’s not as intimidating as it sounds, especially if your fishmonger does the cleaning for you. It’s also a hugely sustainable approach to utilizing seafood.

These are the four basic steps:

  1. Lift the pectoral fin (just below the head) and, using a flexible filet knife, cut across the shoulder. Turn the fish spine toward you and slice down the spine. Cut across the bottom of the fish, just above the tail. Then turn the fish belly toward you and slice from the shoulder cut down to the anal cavity. Then angle the knife parallel to the body and slice evenly down to the tail to create a filet. Flip the fish over and repeat. This is the main event—meat you can bake, grill, or fry. On some fish, like hiramasa, you’ll also have a section of ribs. Cut along the blood line, then remove and cut into rib sections. Gomes says they’re terrific dipped in a panko batter and deep fried.
  2. Cut the triangular section just under the head and below the fins. That’s the collar. The meat is full of fat and flavor. Save that to bake, grill, or fry. Gomes calls these “the chicken wings of the sea.”
  3. Cut off the rest of the head and split it to open flat. Get rid of the gills and then grill or bake the head to enjoy the sweet cheek meat.
  4. What’s left is the carcass. Don’t toss it. Sprinkle it with salt and pepper and little lemon juice and put it on the grill or sauté it. Use a fork to scrape off the meat and enjoy.

Since we’re just easing our way into summer, grilling whole fish is a great weekend entertaining treat for client dinner parties. All you need is a flat grilling surface, like a plancha, and your favorite seasonings—or just salt, pepper, and lemon juice. The result will be sweet and beautifully moist meat guests will fight over.

Pacific Salt-Crusted Fish with Ginger Scallion Sauce

From Andrew Spurgin

Serves three to four

3-4 pound whole fish such as snapper, grouper or sea bass, scaled and cleaned, fins and gills removed by your fishmonger
1 fresh kaffir lime, sliced (replace with key lime if unavailable)
3 kumquats, sliced
4 kaffir lime leaves, slightly crushed before use
1 stalk lemongrass, sliced on bias
8 sprigs cilantro
2 garlic cloves, smashed
¼ cup wakame seaweed, crushed (eliminate if you want to)
4 egg whites
1 ½ 3-pound boxes Kosher salt
Water

For sauce:
½ cup scallions, whites and green, thinly sliced
½ cup fresh young ginger (different from typical ginger), very finely minced
½ teaspoon citrus flavored soy sauce (kinko ponzu shoyu)
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil
½ teaspoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon fish sauce
Sea salt, such as Maldon

Directions

Pre-heat the oven to 375ºf.

Fill the belly and mouth cavity with the kaffir lime, kaffir lime leaves, kumquats, lemongrass, four sprigs of cilantro and the garlic

In a large bowl mix whip the egg whites until softly peaked, fold in the kosher salt and wakame seaweed. Add a little water to get to the consistency of a snowball. Too wet and salt will crack when baked.

Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil for easier cleanup.

Lay down approximately ¾” layer of kosher salt, place the fish on top. Cover the entire fish with the salt mixture, approximately ¾” thick; basically you’re making a salt oven.

Bake for approximately 35 to 40 minutes.

To make the sauce, mix together the scallions, young ginger, yuzu-soy sauce, sesame oil, grapeseed oil, and fish sauce. Sprinkle with sea salt. Taste and adjust if needed. Set aside.

Remove fish from oven and, with a heavy kitchen knife, lightly tap around the bottom edge of the salt crust (near the sheet pan) until cracked all the way around. Carefully lift off the salt crust, it will pull away from the fish. Lightly brush off any remaining salt flakes from the fish with a pastry brush.

Slice down the dorsal side of fish and just behind the head, slice the filet just before the tail. Carefully slice the fish lengthwise to split the top filets in half. Gently lift out the two filets, check for pin bones, and place on a warmed serving platter.

Carefully pull out the backbone, from tail end. All, or most, of the other bones will come with it. Lift out the lower filets as you did with the upper ones

Top with Maldon sea salt, if needed. Serve the scallion ginger sauce on the side. Garnish with remaining cilantro sprigs. Serve immediately.

Serving suggestion:

Serve with simple cucumber salad with Thai basil, mint, bean shoots and shredded cabbage. Toss in a vinaigrette with rice wine vinegar, nước mắm, sugar and chilies. Flash fried wontons on the side.

Great with a dry Riesling wine or Champagne!

Alternative filling:

Parsley, thyme, basil, bay leaf, lemon and garlic. Serve with slowly roasted cherry tomatoes ON the vine. Roast tomatoes with sliced shallots, garlic, thyme sprig, sea salt, pepper and olive oil. Serve warm on the side with torn fresh opal and green basil. Squeeze lemon on fish and drizzle with good olive oil

How do you prepare whole fish? We’d love to hear from you!

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