From the Ground Up: The whole fish, from head to tail
by Ann M. Evans & Georgeanne Brennan
Whole beast cookery has become so popular these days that more than a few restaurants and caterers offer it as an option. Some restaurants order the whole animal and butcher it in-house or even cook the animal whole, carving it for patrons.
At One Market in San Francisco, every week brings a different whole beast event. At Incanto, the popular restaurant of Iron Chef Chris Cosentino, you can preorder a whole pig or lamb or goat dinner. Patrick Mulvaney of Mulvaney’s Savings and Loan in Sacramento is well-known for his whole pig roasts, among other things. But what about whole fish? That is a different kettle, so to speak.
Some restaurants, like Tuco’s in Davis, offer grilled whole sardines, and at Asian restaurants you can sometimes order a whole fish, filleting it yourself at the table. However, for most of us, filleting a whole cooked fish at the table (or even in the kitchen) is not a sought after experience, which is not too surprising.
It’s not uncommon to see shoppers looking longingly at a big, beautiful, glistening whole fish, even asking how to cook it, and then passing it up reluctantly in favor of the more familiar fillets or steaks, not being quite sure how to handle the whole fish. That’s not surprising. Most of us have not had the opportunity to deal with a whole fish, unless we had someone in the family or a friend who took us out fishing, and even then, many fishermen give away their catch, or part of it, rather than cooking it.
Of course, at a market, we can ask the fishmonger or whomever is behind the fish counter to clean and scale the fish for us, even remove the head and tail, but we still need to know how to cook it. From our point of view, however, part of the fun of cooking whole fish on the bone, whether it is a dozen or so sardines or a single Black Cod, is leaving the cleaned fish intact from head to tail.
Since a roasted or baked whole fish is one of the special dishes served during Chinese New Year, which begins this year on Jan. 23, the Year of the Dragon, it seems a good opportunity to take on the challenge and fun of cooking — and filleting — a whole fish and joining in the celebration.
Whole fish can be purchased at numerous locations throughout the region, including the Davis Farmers Market, Nugget Market at multiple locations, Lorenzo’s Town & Country Market in Winters and large supermarkets throughout the area. Ask at the fish counter for the days of fresh fish delivery and what kinds of whole fish they will be getting. You may want to special order as well. For an exceptionally large selection of whole fish, visit County Square Market in Vacaville or S.F. (Shun Fat) Market in Sacramento.
When selecting whole fish for freshness, look for eyes that are bright and clear, not cloudy, and skin so slippery you can hardly hold the fish. Under no circumstances should there be any discernable odor. Plan on 8 to 12 ounces of fish per person.
The following recipe is adapted from our forthcoming “Davis Farmers Market Cookbook,” Mirabelle Press, available in March, 2012.
Baked Whole Fish with Ginger, Carrots and Green Onions
In this dish, the firm, white flesh of the fish becomes delicately perfumed with ginger and onion.
1 whole fish, such as White Sea Bass or Black Cod, 3 to 31/2 pounds
2 teaspoons canola oil
1 teaspoon coarse sea or kosher salt
One-half teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch green onions
3 small carrots, each about 3 inches long, peeled and cut into thin slivers
2-inch piece fresh ginger
Preheat the oven to 350° F.
If the fish has not already been cleaned, gut the fish by making a slit with a sharp knife along the belly, from the gills to the tail. Remove the entrails and discard. Rinse the cavity thoroughly and pat dry. Rub the fish all over, inside and out, with the canola oil. Then rub the fish all over, inside and out, with the salt and pepper. Place the fish in a large baking dish or on a baking sheet.
Trim off the roots of the onions and cut them on the diagonal into long strips. Peel the ginger and cut into matchsticks. Put about half of the onions and half of the ginger inside the fish cavity and strew the remainder over the top of the fish, along with the carrots. Cover the baking dish with foil.
Bake the fish until the flesh flakes easily when tested with a knife, 35 to 40 minutes. To test, insert the knife between the backbone and the top fillet; the flesh should pull easily away from the bone and flakes should be visible. Using a wide metal spatula, or two smaller spatulas, transfer the fish to a platter.
To fillet the fish, with a sharp knife, make a cut along the dorsal fin, from the head to the tail. Then make one cut to separate the fillet from the head, and a second cut to separate the fillet from the tail. Using two spoons or a spatula, lift the top fillet off the bones, either first cutting in half lengthwise or leaving it whole, and set it aside on a plate or platter. Now, take the spine at the tail and peel the spine and ribs off to reveal the bottom fillet. Cut the fillets as necessary and divide evenly among individual plates.
Serve the fish hot, accompanied with a little of the onion and ginger, if desired.
Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan are coauthors of the forthcoming The Davis Farmers Market Cookbook, Tasting California’s Small Farms, (March 2012.) Co-leaders of Slow Food Yolo, they have a food and marketing consulting firm, Evans & Brennan, LLC, specializing in farm fresh food in school lunch. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.