Too often, Thanksgiving takes us through familiar culinary paces, a tired turkey routine and other half-hearted traditions. A total bore, that I usually eat too much of all the same. But not this time. While watching my in-laws reenact the usual dishes, I pursued my own inspiration by attempting salt crusted whole fish for the first time. Check out the previous post showing my preparations for the event.
This pictorial story could serve as a “how to” on salt crust fish baking, but before you go out and mimic my technique, read closely for the many details that I wish had gone differently (and the numerous links in the previous post). In the end, I was glad to have given this a shot and I’m sure I’ll be doing it again soon. Next time, I want to use a larger fish and a larger pan. Two at once in a small pan is a tough scenario for a first-timer. The lighting for these shots was awful (and flash doesn’t help food fotos much – see sauce pic below), but thanks to Karen for taking pictures while my hands were covered with salt, oil, and fishiness.
I stuffed them with lemons, rosemary, thyme, garlic cloves, peppercorns, fennel seeds, and as many olives as I could fit in each cavity. That’s the Royal Dorade on top and the Branzino on bottom. Both are just over a pound. In case I needed to pick them up out of the salt, I put down a little parchment cut-out like a fish beneath each of these guys. They got slathered in the sauce (described below) before burial.
While the mound baked for 30 mins, I stirred my olive oil together with fresh lemon juice, parsley, (no sage), rosemary, and thyme, capers, garlic clove, a few dashes of white wine vinegar, and some lemon zest. Actually, I did this over night, but I adjusted the juice/oil ratio to get the flavor right at the last minute. Karen says it was almost as good as D’aqua.
The finished product doesn’t look much different than it did when it went in. One recipe said to cook until the salt turns golden brown, but that makes no sense. It’s 15 minutes per pound of fish (at the most). I stuck a thin bladed knife in to test the temp against my lip, a la Eric Ripert. That’s the hole there. To my surprise, the salt was rock hard, just as the recipes say. The knife was HOT. And the edge of the salt was in fact golden brown. (for those cooking along with me, I used egg whites in the top layer of salt, but I hear you don’t have to)
After hacking through the scalding hot igloo made of salt, I found these two fishies. They were super hot and it was a real pain to excavate them without getting salt on the meat. The high sides of the pan didn’t help. I’m sure it gets easier with practice, but… next time less salt and a bigger pan with low sides.
The skin comes right off, either with the salt or after you take the salt off. One time, on Iron Chef, Bobby Flay put parchment on both sides to make clean up and plating quicker and easier. I think that’s cheating, but maybe I’m just determined to get it right according to the traditional method before incorporating shortcuts.
I coulda swore I buried a couple fish in this here pile of salt. Seriously though, this is what was left after I transferred them to another plate where Karen and I could de-bone without four pounds of salt in our way.
Here’s the dish as it went to the table. That’s the dorade in the front. We decided we liked it best (firm “chicken-y” meat that’s a little sweet and nuanced). The branzino (at the top of that pic) was very mild and maybe slightly overcooked. Perhaps it didn’t need as long as the dorade, but they were both buried and resurrected at the same time (another miscalculation). The olives from the fish cavity were extra succulent. Both fish, as predicted, were unbelievably moist. Hey! Ya know what that dish of fish needs? “Good quali-y oli-oil,” says Jamie Oliver. Don’t mind if I do. Happy un-Turkey Day, yall.