There you are, standing before the fishmonger as he and several pairs of fish eyes ogle you. Yes, it would be easier to just get a neat, pre-filleted piece of flesh — one without a face and a tail. But you’re feeling adventurous. This is the day you man up to the whole fish. So, you casually point out your specimen as your monger nods his approval. Now what?
On a recent getaway to Roscoe, N.Y., a.k.a. Trout Town USA, I was surrounded by people for which this would never happen. I was surrounded by fishermen. These were no ordinary sit-in-a-boat-drink-a-beer-while-your-worm-does-all-the-work fishermen. They were fly fishermen, a breed of sportsman so skilled and zen that you might find one standing in the middle of a field instead of a river casting again and again for practice. The proper form for casting a fly takes years to master. Once you learn to float your fly convincingly onto the water’s surface, then reel in a feisty swimmer who has taken the bait with grace, you tend to also become pretty adept at cooking the things.
The advice I got from a couple fly fishermen on the river was simple: clean it, gut it, stuff it with lemon and grill it. In practice, there are a few more things to keep in mind when cooking a fish whole. For starters, you want to choose your species carefully. As it turns out, there aren’t as many fish in the sea as there used to be, nor in our rivers and lakes. For example, if you live in the Northeast, you might want to look for croaker or porgy. On the West Coast, salmon or sablefish are good options. Check the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guides for what to eat near you. And then, follow our advice:
Once you have chosen your fish, make sure it’s fresh
It should have clear, bright eyes, dark pink or red gills and a firm body with a good slick to it. Ask your fishmonger if it’s ready to cook or if any extra membranes should be removed.
Keep your head
Cutting off the head of the fish not only makes for a less dramatic presentation, but means you’ll miss out on the sweetest bites, the plump little cheeks. The tail is another treat, crispy and nutty. As for bones, they help keep the fish moist, but in some cases are best removed. Ask your fishmonger.
Make deep, even slashes along the body, about an inch or so apart. These will help the fish cook evenly and will encourage any flavors you cover the fish with to seep into the flesh.
Oil the fish
Brush it with good olive oil, inside the cavity and all over the body. Season it generously with salt and some pepper, both inside and out.
As our fishermen friends said, lemon is a no brainer for stuffing a fish, but you can try any combination of citrus, whole sprigs of fresh herbs, chopped fennel, onions…and tuck them into the fish’s cavity. You might have to truss it to keep it closed. For smaller fish like sardines, the aromatics can go on the outside of the fish.
Make sure your grill is clean, hot and well oiled. Fish skin can stick. Cook your fish for a few minutes on each side, flipping only once to avoid destroying the delicate flesh. Flip it when the skin starts to crisp.
In an oven heated to 400º F, place your fish in a roasting pan for 15-20 minutes per pound. If your fish isn’t too big or unwieldy, you can also pan roast it first until browned, then finish it in the oven.
Carefully transfer your whole fish to a large platter and garnish with some of the ingredients used. Serve it with as much drama and flair as you please and bask in the audible awe of your guests. For serving, you can use a spatula to slide sections off the backbone. If it’s an intimate dinner for two, pick it apart like little bears with your partner.
Now, try out these fish recipes on Food Republic: