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(recipe below) This is the second of a two-part article about whole fish. Last time we discussed how to select and clean whole fish. This week we will focus on cooking whole fish, a task that is far less daunting than you’d think. The issue is not the fish itself, but the modus operandi. If you know your cooking methods, then you basically apply the principles for that method irrespective of what the target food is. For example, if you’re well versed in the rules for deep-frying, then you simply follow those procedures be it fish, zucchini, or chicken. If you wish to poach your fish, then you’d be advised to do your homework about poaching, not red snapper per se. Thus, there is no need to be intimidated by a whole fish. Be more concerned about learning the underlying procedures for the cooking process you wish to utilize.
With that said, there are a few aspects of the food itself and not the technique that should be considered. Which cooking method is appropriate and when it is done is dependent on the food in question. Fortunately whole fish are amenable to a wide variety of approaches. They can be deep-fried, pan fried, steamed, braised, poached, roasted, grilled or broiled. As to the doneness issue, cook fish to 135 degrees. Insert a thermometer into the deepest part of the flesh, not touching the bone for the most accurate reading. Many recipes state that the fish is done when it flakes, but sometimes this can be overdone.
To illustrate my point about knowing the cooking method first and then applying it to whole fish, let’s review broiling, the technique employed for my recipe below. Broiling is a dry heat cooking method whereby a radiant energy source is located directly above the food. In other words, the food is underneath the heat. No matter what you are broiling: 1) pre-heat the broiler fully before introducing the food, 2) season and/or oil the food prior to cooking, 3), grease the rack or pan the food is to rest on while broiling, 4) do not place the food too close to the broiler, (4 inches is a safe distance), 5) flip the food once the first side is fully seared and then sear the second side, and 6) do not employ foods that are too thick or the outside will be incinerated before the center is fully cooked. As for whole fish, over two inches is probably too thick. Bake/roast it instead. All of the above guidelines apply to grilling as well with the obvious exception of step four.
Let’s elaborate on step two, the seasoning and oiling of the fish. At the very least lightly brush the inside and outside of the fish with oil and season it with salt and pepper. But that’s only the beginning. All kinds of additional flavoring elements can be administered. It can be as simple as adding some slices of lemon to the body cavity and sprinkling the outside with lemon juice. Herbs and other aromatics, such as garlic or onion can be inserted into the cavity. Moreover, there are innumerable sauces or marinades that can also be applied to the surface/cavity of the fish instead of the oil. The point is to augment the taste by introducing flavor enhancing items to the inside and outside of the fish.
RECIPE BROILED FISH WITH PONZU SAUCE
For the Ponzu sauce: • ½ cup ponzu* • ¼ cup soy sauce • Juice of 1 ½ limes • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard • 1 teaspoon hot chile oil (or substitute Thai fish sauce) • 1 tablespoon sugar • 1 tablespoon minced garlic • 1 tablespoon minced ginger • 1-2 minced jalapenos • 1 handful chopped cilantro, leaves and stems • Salt and pepper to taste • 6 oz. olive oil
For the fish: • 1 (2 – 2 ½ lb.) fish, (sea bass, striped bass, red snapper, tilapia, etc.)
Directions Preheat the broiler. Combine all of the ingredients for the sauce except the olive oil and whisk thoroughly. Then slowly whisk in the oil until a well blended emulsion is formed. Use two thirds of the sauce as a marinade and reserve one third to pour on the finished fish at the table. The fish should be scaled and gutted. Wash the fish under cold water, especially the body cavity, and then pat it dry inside and out with paper towels. Make a series of three or four slits on each side of the fish, cutting down to the backbone. Marinate the fish in two-thirds of the sauce in a large plastic bag or other container for no more than 30 minutes. Generously lubricate the rack the fish is to rest on with oil or cooking spray. You may want to line the tray beneath the rack with aluminum foil for easier cleaning afterward. Place the fish on the rack and drizzle some of the marinade on it. Use the remaining marinade (not the one third left over for the table), to drizzle on the second side when you flip the fish.
Place the fish under the broiler and cook until the first side is fully seared, (about 5 minutes for one-inch thick fish, closer to 8 minutes for two-inch). Carefully flip the fish, drizzle some of the remaining marinade on it and sear the other side for another 5-8 minutes. These times are rough guides. Depending on the weight and thickness of the fish and the nature of your broiler they can vary. Flip and/or remove the fish sooner if it appears done and then, most importantly, check the temperature. Serve the fish with the reserved sauce and some Asian white rice.
*Ponzu is a soy sauce flavored with citrus juice, vinegar, rice wine, kombu, (seaweed), and katsuobushi, (dried bonito flakes). It can be found in the Asian section of most supermarkets.