Active time:20 minutes
Total time:50 minutes
Servings:2 to 4
“Culturally, we are not a country that spends a lot of time eating whole fish. We are not conditioned to do it; we’re a filet-eating society,” chef Ricky Moore, of the Durham, NC, Saltbox Seafood Joint, told me by phone. “In most places abroad, eating whole fish is standard, it’s normal.”
“Growing up, we didn’t eat fillet fish,” Moore said, pointing out that he comes from “a long line of fishermen.”
“Our philosophy was: fishermen don’t catch fillets, we catch whole fish.” So, cooking whole fish is a more obvious approach in Moore’s mind. “I think it’s the most natural way to celebrate good fish in person, both from a preparation and texture standpoint,” he said.
Between supermarket rotisserie and home-cooked birds, we roast a lot of chicken in the United States, but processors cut their heads off so we don’t have to look them in the face. There’s an intimacy to looking into another’s eyes, doubly so when his death means he’s passed from fellow animal to food. For much of human existence, this feeling has been described in terms of lordship or disgust. For the past decades I have tried to approach it with humility.
If you eat fish but have never cooked a whole one, tonight might be the night to give it a try. Whole fish is often less expensive than fillets, and roasting is at least as easy as roasting a chicken or large piece of meat.
“Simplicity is key,” Moore advised. Have your fishmonger clean, descale and trim the sharp fins first. Bring it to room temperature at home, season, fill the cavity and prepare to cook it over high heat, somewhere between 375 and 450 degrees. The hardest part is knowing when it’s done.
How do you know when it’s buttery, not dry? “Checking for doneness is universal,” Moore said. “Find one of the dorsal fins. If it pulls out easily, the fish is cooked.” As with all proteins cooked with bone, there will be some cooking over, so rest time should be taken into account as well.
This recipe calls for a whole bass or snapper, which is seasoned, stuffed, and roasted atop zucchini or carrots for a plate-pan meal. Once out of the oven, sprinkle the fish with pomegranate molasses, a sweet and sour sauce that gives even the mildest fish plenty of flavor. (Look for it near the honey at your grocery store, or at Middle Eastern or Indian grocers.) A pinch of pistachios adds the finishing touch of crunch.
Of course you can get a whole fish without a head – any fishmonger will be happy to chop it off – but if I buy a fish to cook whole, I wouldn’t want that: I want to look into its eyes, their bright shine. Especially if I didn’t catch the fish myself, that’s proof that it swam not too long ago, proof that it’s coming to smell and taste like the clean, salty sea.
Whole Roasted Fish With Pomegranate Molasses
- Not a fish eater? >> Try this with firm tofu marinated with spring onions and orange slices. Chicken thighs are another option.
- Can’t find pomegranate molasses? >> Use a mixture of equal parts honey and lime or lemon juice.
- No pistachios? >> Pumpkin seeds or toasted sesame seeds would be tasty here.
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- 1 (1 1/2- to 2-lb) whole snapper or bass, cleaned and descaled
- 1 small orange
- 1 medium zucchini or 2 large carrots (about 12 ounces total), thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more if needed
- fine salt
- 2 spring onions, cleaned
- 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses, plus more to serve
- 2 tablespoons shelled, toasted pistachios, preferably lightly salted, chopped
Set the fish on the counter to let it come to room temperature before cooking.
While the fish is coming to room temperature, using a vegetable peeler – trying to avoid the bitter white pith underneath – remove a small strip of zest from the orange. Cut the orange zest into thin strips and set aside for garnish. Halve the orange and cut one half into thin crescents. (Save the remaining orange for another use.)
Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 450 degrees.
On a large, rimmed baking sheet, toss the sliced zucchini or carrot along with 1 tablespoon olive oil and spread the slices evenly in the center of the pan; It’s okay if they overlap a bit. Season lightly with salt.
Grease the fish with the remaining olive oil, using more if necessary, and season lightly with salt inside and out. Fill the abdominal cavity with the orange slices and spring onions. Depending on the size of your fish, not all fillings may fit; reserve the excess for another use. Place the stuffed fish on top of the vegetables in the center of the pan. Toast, turning the pan once halfway through cooking, for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the skin is crispy and visibly puffed and a thermometer in the thickest part of the head reads 135 degrees.
Let the fish rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Sprinkle the fish with half the pomegranate molasses and sprinkle with half the pistachios and orange zest. To serve, use a thin spatula or large spoon and carefully transfer the top fillet to a plate (see NOTE). Grab the tail and pull it up to remove the bones from the center of the fish. Transfer the remaining fillet to a plate and garnish with the remaining pomegranate molasses, pistachios and grater. Serve with the roasted vegetables and extra pomegranate molasses on the side.
REMARK: Prepare a serving bowl or bowl. Remove the pin bones along the back of the fish by cutting away the dorsal fin – trace the line of the fish’s back from just below the head to the tail.
Separate the head and collarbone from the top fillet, tracing the line where they meet, and cut about halfway through the fish. Do the same with the tail. Slide a thin, metal spatula under the top fillet to separate the meat from the backbone and slide the fillet onto the plate.
Grab the tail and pull it up to remove the bones from the center of the fish, which should also remove the head. Transfer the remaining fillet to a plate and garnish with the remaining pomegranate molasses, pistachios and orange zest.
Per portion (1/2 fillet), based on 4
Calories: 284; Total fat: 11 g; Saturated fat: 2 g; Cholesterol: 63mg; Sodium: 192mg; Carbohydrates: 8 g; Dietary fiber: 2 g; sugar: 6 g; Protein: 37 g.
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not replace the advice of a dietician or nutritionist.
From staff writer G. Daniela Galarza.
Tested by Kara Elder; e-mail questions to [email protected].
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Check out this week’s Eat Gluttonous recipes:
Monday: Tortilla soup with mushrooms and black beans
Tuesday: Sweet Potato Toast With Hummus, Radish And Sunflower Sprouts
Wednesday: Green Salad With Pears, Pecans And Blue Cheese
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