There are certain recipes that are immediately appealing, beloved by most and attainable by all. They tend to be easy, comforting, delicious-looking no-brainers that don’t require much persuading for people to make them. Think giant bowls of gloriously cheesy pasta.
Then there are the recipes that may not immediately inspire because they may seem unfamiliar or needlessly complicated, recipes that may require a bit more convincing. Perhaps approximately 600 words of convincing. Recipes like cooking a whole fish. With the head.
Cooking a whole fish is something many people would probably file under “not for me,” only ever ordering it at a restaurant, if that. I get it: If you didn’t grow up eating it, there are a lot of bones to navigate, and those milky white, beady eyes, which are definitely looking at you. But I promise that cooking and eating a whole fish in your home is not scary or complicated (and the fish is not looking at you).
So maybe this is the year you overcome your fear. After all, aside from claiming you’re not going to drink alcohol, what is January for if not new beginnings?
If you’re concerned about where you will actually find these fish, don’t be. Many of the types of fish available in grocery stores are meant to be cooked whole — mildly flavored, relatively lean (meaning not oily), medium-size fish like snapper, bass and branzino. They will also be scaled and gutted, so you don’t have to pretend you just spent a day on the high seas to bring home a properly cleaned fish.
You want one that smells like the ocean (but not too fishy, and certainly not like ammonia), with clear, taut eyes. Leaving the head on is optional, but I say leave it — it adds personality.
Now comes the part where you have to cook it. Good news: If you can sear a chicken breast in a skillet, you can cook a whole fish. The skillet method in this recipe is a slightly more (but not much more) complex method than simply popping the fish into the oven, and it avoids the tragically soft and soggy skin that the oven method can yield, especially if your oven isn’t well calibrated or just doesn’t ever seem to get that hot.
As if the promise of ease weren’t enough, a fish cooked in its entirety is much more delicious than one that has been filleted first. In the same way a piece of bone-in, skin-on chicken will always be juicier and more flavorful than its boneless, skinless counterpart, fish benefits from keeping its protective skin and bones. They make it nearly impossible to overcook and dry out the fish, as does the buttery, citrus-heavy, soy sauce-seasoned pan sauce you baste it with (again, very delicious).
I understand that, for some people, it’s not even the cooking part that freaks them out — it’s the “what now?” once the fish is done.
Well, since I tend to keep things on the casual side, I won’t even bother filleting it most of the time. Rather, I’ll just tell everyone I’m eating with to go at one side of the fish with a fork, until we’ve eaten all the meat on that side and reached the bones. Then I’ll lift the head, spine and tail out in one fell swoop, leaving it looking as though a cartoon cat had its way with it. Properly cooked fish will almost always release from the bones as effortlessly as if someone had done it for you. (They didn’t! It’s you, you’re doing it!) You might even be shocked at how intuitive this part is.
While there may be a few smaller pin bones left in the fillet, removing the whole spine takes care of the scary part. There you are, fearless, with your delicious fish.
Recipe: Whole Fish With Soy and Citrus
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