Learning to Eat Off the Bone
When it comes to meat and fish, my family often falls prey to what seems to plague much of White America. We only eat certain cuts of certain meats, and most definitely avoid anything on the bone. This is especially true of seafood. When my husband asked my mom if she would be willing to try a new way of eating fish, she told us, “Only as long as I don’t have to look my dinner in the eye.” I used to whole-heartedly agree with my mom, and was repulsed at the market where the fish seemed to stare back at me, daring me to eat them. Now, I have learned how delicious (and sometimes fresher and more economical) whole fish can be. I have come a long way from my first whole fish experience in Croatia!
When it comes to this method of cooking fish, it all starts with the quality of the ingredient. I am lucky enough to have found two great local fish markets (Keyport Fishery for anyone in the central NJ region and New Deal Fish Market for anyone in the Boston area). My husband is the expert in our house when it comes to choosing fish, but he has taught me a few basic rules. First, the smell of the fish really does tell you if the fish is fresh. While there will always be a mild fishy aroma, it should not smell unpleasant or so strong you can smell the fish at a distance. You can also tell a lot about a fish (or at least the freshness) through its eyes – they should be clear and in tact. Lastly, we have found it helpful to call the fishery the night before or morning of to ask about what fish they have gotten, or are expecting to get, fresh that day. Getting there early can ensure you get the best selection from what they have.
For fish preparation, I prefer to have the fishery help me out. Most good fisheries should be able to gut, scale, and take the fins off the fish before sending you home with it. This saves a lot of prep and mess, and ensures that you don’t ruin the beautiful fish you just worked so hard to pick! When planning how much fish to buy to feed your guests, remember that a bit of fish weight is made up of the head and bones. A 1.5lb fish will generally feed one hungry person, in our experience, and generally runs $8-$12 per pound, depending on season and type of fish.
Our favorite fish to prepare whole is Bronzino, also known as European sea bass. However, we chose a beautiful Red Snapper for this dinner. We wanted to prepare a special Caribbean-inspired dinner as a thank you to my parents for watching our dog, and Snapper lends well to island flavors. The fishery had just received whole snappers that morning, so we got choice pick. The fish were HUGE, and we walked away with the baby of the bunch – a 5.5lb beauty. First, we scored the fish diagonally to help infuse flavor. We then rubbed the skin and inside of the fish with garlic, allspice, thyme, salt and pepper. While we usually pan-fry whole fish to get a nice crispy skin, there was no skillet big enough for this guy. We created a foil boat and cooked our fish in a bit of canola oil on the grill over high heat for about 25 minutes, requiring a bit more cooking time since it was so thick in the middle. At the end, we spooned a bit of the boiling canola oil over the skin to make it crispier.
The result was spectacular. Not only was the fish beautiful, but it was also tender, moist and delicious. Since we had the whole fish, we got to enjoy the most tender and most underused parts (my favorite are the cheeks). Our dinner was rounded out with coconut rice and Brazilian style Collard greens and finished with grilled pineapple, all complimented by Antiguan style Rum punch.
We combined a few recipes and resources to make this meal happen, listed below if you are interested in trying this out! We have deemed Fridays to be “fresh fish Fridays” to take advantage of shore-living while we can, so hopefully some more great meals are to come!
Question: Are you a whole fish fan? Do you have any tips to share for choosing or preparing the perfect whole fish?