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THE COOKING ISSUE | TECHNIQUE, REFINED

One fish, five dishes

Start whole, on the bone. Then let the transformation begin.

March 21, 2007|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

THERE it is at the seafood market, a whole fish, gleaming fresh, eyes bulging, looking like it just flopped up from out of the ocean. It's so gorgeous you have to buy it. Now the question is: What the heck are you supposed to do with it?

The answer is simple: Just about anything. There are few things easier to cook than a whole fish.

And not only is a whole fish more beautiful to serve than a fillet (once you get past that silly "Eek! It looks like a fish!" reaction -- what are you, in fifth grade?), it tastes better too. Just like any other meat cooked on the bone, fish cooked in the round is moister and more flavorful.

Even better, it's incredibly flexible. You can use almost any cooking technique you can think of, and you'll get a very different dish each time.

Probably the easiest is simply steaming it, in the Chinese fashion: Put the fish on a plate; sprinkle it with shredded ginger, green onions and a little soy sauce; put the plate in a steamer and cook. In 10 or 15 minutes, you'll have a perfectly moist, beautifully fragrant dish.

No, wait, maybe it's roasting: Stuff the cavity with herbs and lemon slices; put the fish on a baking sheet; scatter a few lemon slices over top and bake at 400 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. The skin will crisp slightly and the meat will pick up hints of the herbs and lemon.

Or you can simply grill it over a medium-hot fire or under the broiler and the only thing the fish needs to be complete is a light drizzling of flavored oil.

The list goes on: You can poach a whole fish in a pan of barely simmering, fragrant fish broth. You can even deep-fry it by dusting it with flour or cornstarch and submerging it in bubbling oil. (Use a slightly lower temperature of 350 degrees to avoid scorching the outside before the center is cooked through.)

The best whole fish

MOST of the whole fish you'll find at the market belong to one of two fairly similar species, though this can get a little confusing because fishmongers have always felt perfectly comfortable calling fish by names that rightfully belong to other species.

The most popular whole fish at local markets is usually called New Zealand snapper or Tai snapper (the latter is not a misspelling -- tai is the Japanese word for this kind of fish). Though it is a very good fish, it is not truly a snapper; it is a porgy. Neither is it real Japanese tai. It's a cousin, along with the fish the French call daurade. It is caught in the wild, mostly off New Zealand.

The other most commonly available whole fish is the variety that is alternately called loup de mer or branzino, depending on whether the market is feeling French or Italian that day. This fish, once hard to find in the United States, has become widely available now that it is farmed in several Mediterranean countries. (The wild is still available but only rarely and at elevated prices.)

From time to time, you will also find other whole fish, including wild striped bass. (Don't mistake it for its farmed freshwater cousin, which often tastes as muddy as tilapia.) You can also still find the old favorite rockfish, though it is much scarcer than it used to be due to the closure of much of its fishery for conservation.

All of these fish have a sweet, mild flavor. Their flesh is firm and flaky -- at least compared with sole, which is soft and flaky, and shark and swordfish, which are firm and meaty.

And while these fish certainly are not the same, they are similar enough that they can be used interchangeably in recipes -- like substituting lime for lemon, the results will be different, but they will be good.

Cooking whole fish is not only fast, it's surprisingly easy.

What about all that nasty scaling and gutting? Forget about them: Any store that sells whole fish will also do most of the advance preparation for you as well. Do not pass up this service. There are few tasks that will wreck a kitchen faster than scaling fish -- the scales are transparent when wet and will stick like glue after they've dried.

And though gutting a fish is something that all cooks should do a time or two to familiarize themselves more thoroughly with its anatomy, that's a chore that can be safely left to the professionals most of the time too.

This leaves you with only a little bit of neatening up when you get home -- basically just removing the fins. The best tool for this is a sturdy pair of poultry shears. Trim the fins behind the gills and along the back and the two pairs underneath. Trimming the tail is optional, though it is sometimes necessary for the fish to fit in the pan. Most good fishmongers will even do all of this too.

The only thing left is to score the skin lightly along the midsection on both sides about every 2 inches. Use a sharp knife; the cut should just break the skin and the first layer of flesh, but not go to the bone. This helps the heat penetrate to the center of the fish.

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