Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A little (3 lb) fishy (salt baked fish)

We eat more fish than anything else. My favorite home preparation is steaming fish in parchment with vegetables, herbs, or in a scented broth. 20 minutes in the oven, hard to mess up, and fun to open and eat at the table.

My favorite preparation out, however, is whole fish either roasted or grilled, very simply prepared - often without sauce and just drizzled with a little olive oil. Grilled is out of the question in my kitchen as I don't have a ventilation hood over the stove. Roasted or baked can be tricky since fish can so easily dry out. That's where the silver bullet method comes in: whole fish baked in salt.

The salt forms a hard dome over the fish which seals in moisture and results in fish that is moist and juicy with a subtle flavor from whatever you stuff in the cavity during cooking (lemon, thyme, parsley, garlic, orange slices, to name a few options). To add more fun and drama, when you remove the fish from the oven, you have break open the salt dome to release the fish.

I've tried baking fish in salt a couple different ways: in pure kosher salt with nothing added, and in a mixture of kosher salt, water, and egg whites. The latter method is meant to create a paste which creates a firmer seal but I've found that the salt tends to remain moist and clumpy and is harder to remove completely after cooking.

My favorite recipe comes from a cookbook, Culinaria: European Specialties (part of a broader series), that was given to me by a friend a long time ago. It calls for a 3 pound Sea Bream (Daurade), but lately I've been making it with striped bass with great success. I've made up to a 6 pound fish with the same recipe, doubling the salt, and using a half sheet pan to bake it on.

There's a room-temperature sauce that goes with the fish; I've made it with and without the sauce (which I put in a bowl and pass around to allow people to serve themselves if desired).

[Sea Bream] in a salt crust adapted from Culinaria: European Specialties

1 3lb sea bream cleaned and ready for cooking
Juice of 1 lemon
3 garlic cloves
1 sprig thyme
4-6 pounds course sea salt
2 untreated lemons

Romesco sauce

1/4 cup almonds
3 garlic cloves
1 tomato
Salt, black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tbs wine vinegar

Preheat oven to 460°F. Rinse the fish and season inside with lemon juice. Cut the garlic cloves in half and place inside the fish with the thyme. Cover the bottom of a fireproof dish with a layer of salt as thick as a finger. Place the fish on top of this and then add enough salt for the fish to be completely covered. Bake in the oven for ~40 minutes. Temperature on an instant read thermometer inserted through the salt into the fish should read 130°F when done. Let rest at room temperature for 5 minutes before cracking open.

Once cooked, break open the salt crust and carefully remove the fish from it (dust off any lingering salt). Take off its skin and fillet the fish. Place on pre-heated plates and serve with lemon garnish.

To prepare sauce, peel and lightly roast the almonds and crush them in a mortar together with the garlic (or use skinned almonds). Skin the tomato, remove the seeds and add it to the almonds (I use a few canned whole Italian plum tomatoes and add additional tomato paste as necessary to achieve the consistency I want). Work everything into a smooth paste. Season with salt and pepper and add the olive oil and the vinegar, mixing everything together thoroughly.

P.S. I've slowly been updating the links of the right-hand side of my blog to better reflect things I've been reading and thinking about lately. The "inspired" list is worth taking a peek at: there are some amazingly talented photographers, designers and bloggers who have been keeping me thinking and dreaming and who you might also find interesting.


Anonymous said...

My husband adores whole fish more than anything. Oddly, it never occured to me to try making it myself. I can't wait to try the salt method you describe. Do you just slit the fish along the skeleton to put in the spices and leave it with the bones in? Are you sure it won't make the fish salty?

Sabra said...

The fish will come gutted and cleaned from the fish monger so it will be slit down the side already. All you do is add what you want into the cavity and bake. The salt doesn't permeate the fish in any way - you remove the skin so there's no remaining salt when you are done fileting it.

Anonymous said...

Your salt crusted fish recipe sounds delicious
To cook it makes you so ambitious-
To try so many recipes anew
Makes the fish very proud of you.

Anonymous said...

At what stage in the process is the fish in your photo (cool shot, by the way)? I was imagining the fish completely covered in an inch or so of salt before cooking.

Sabra said...

Hi Amy:
He's being prepared for the oven - I have him on a bed of salt but haven't poured salt over him yet - you are right, he'd be covered (except perhaps for the last part of the tail which, if it hangs over, you can clip or leave sticking out.

Anonymous said...

Very helpful, thank you!

Anonymous said...

Do I have to remove the scales?

Sabra said...

Interesting question - I buy a fish that's de-scaled and cleaned by the fish monger - I suppose it's not critical to remove the scales. To me, a fish presented at the table would be less appetizing with the scales even if you remove the skin - it's a matter of personal preference.

Jennifer @ OrangePolkaDot said...

Great recipe for baking a fish in salt. I love the idea of stuffing the fish - we haven't tried that yet.

I recently wrote a post about salt available at supermarkets in Spain - 15 different types! Cooking fish in salt is really common here. I linked to your post for an example of how to use "Sal Para Cocinar."

Here is my post on Salt in Spain:

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