Roasted Whole Fish with Potatoes
Some people just aren’t used to eating a whole animal. The roasted pig sitting on our kitchen cupboard, head and all, garnered a good deal of admiration at Stefano’s recent 40th birthday party. It’s too bad he (the pig) was not cognizant for it all – a classic case of posthumous fame.
The same is true with fish. Not everyone is prepared to find a whole one on their dinner plate. We found our freshwater friend’s underbite amusing; but teeth and eyeballs cause some squirm. Besides, many of us never learned what to do when presented with a whole fish for dinner. How does one go about removing the head, skin and spine in order to get to the the tender white fillet inside?
In many cultures, though, eating whole fish is commonplace. Whole fish is more economical than fish fillets, and also much better tasting. Meats and fish cooked in their bones and skin are always moister and more savory than slices of meat or fish separated from the carcass.
In Italy, roasted fish with rosemary potatoes are a common Sunday afternoon meal. Stefano’s mom, Maria, visits the fish market on Saturday and picks out whichever fish looks the best – sometimes spigola (seabass), other times trota (trout). Freshness is important – signs of a not-so-fresh fish include a fishy smell, cloudy eyes, and a dry tail. In Italy, they will typically gut and scale your fish right there for you. In the States, they will often come scaled and gutted.
On a side note, an Italian fish market is a spectacular sight – be sure to visit one when you are there.
At home, Maria washes the fish, stuffs their cavities with herbs and spices, and bakes them with diced potatoes seasoned with salt, pepper, olive oil and a bit of crushed red pepper.
The first step in eating a whole roasted fish is to remove the head. Place your fork under its gill, and use your knife to separate the head from the rest of the fish. Use your knife to remove the tail. Then, slide your knife under the skin; it should lift right off exposing the tender, flaky fillet below. Don’t try to turn your fish over to remove the skin on the bottom side. Instead, carefully lift the fish fillet up and off, leaving the spine intact below. Remove the herbs that you will find there then, starting from the top, carefully lift the spine away from the other fillet below. Finally, turn the bottom fillet over and remove its skin. When you serve whole fish, remember to place a few extra plates out on the table to hold the skin and bones.
1 whole fish per person. Trout or sea bass work well.
1 potato per person, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes.
1 clove of finely minced garlic per fish, plus extra for the potatoes
1 sprig of fresh rosemary per fish, plus extra for the potatoes
Crushed red pepper
Wash the exterior and the cavity of the fish under cold water. Coat the bottom of a baking pan or roasting pan with olive oil. Add the diced potatoes. Salt and pepper the potatoes liberally, and add a handful of finely mined garlic and rosemary stems. Rub olive oil on the skin and in the cavity of each fish, and lay them in the baking pan on top of the potatoes. Salt the cavity of each fish liberally and add the minced garlic. If you wish, you may also add some crushed red pepper. Place a sprig of rosemary inside each fish.
Bake at 375° F for approximately 30 minutes. Once or twice during cooking, use a flat spatula to lift and turn the potatoes, being careful to not prod or poke the fish. Do not turn the fish. Cooking time will vary according to the size of the fish; it is done when the skin loosens and the meat is tender but firm to the touch. Your potatoes may require additional cooking time. If this is the case, remove the fish and return the baking tray to the oven until the potatoes are golden brown.