From purchasing to preparing, Americans in general are a bit skittish when it comes to the whole fish. Whole fish options are scarce at most traditional markets, and shoppers opt for prefabricated portions verses filleting their own.
If you are one of many who think mastering a whole fish is daunting, consider the benefits. Here we provide a brief but useful video tutorial aimed at purging any lingering apprehension. If you are ready to take the whole fish challenge, let’s dive right in!
So why buy fish whole?
If you want to know if your fish is fresh, a whole fish will provide all the necessary clues. You just need to rely on your senses … sight, smell and touch.
Make sure your whole fish has these qualities that indicate freshness:
• Smells like the ocean and not “fishy.”*
• Eyes are clear and bright, not cloudy, dry or squishy.
• Gills are dark red, not brown. (Sometimes these are removed by the fish monger. If removed, the cavity should be clean.)
• Flesh is firm and moist.
• Skin should glisten, and scales should be intact unless the fish is already scaled.
• Be careful when picking up and holding the fish, as fins and teeth can be sharp and pointy. Dress the fish by removing the fins and head for easier handling.
*Note: The viscera (guts) are typically removed to prolong freshness, as both these and the gills are a source of bacteria. Some ethnic markets will leave them in. Always remove before fabricating and cooking. Make sure any odor from the viscera has not permeated the fish once removed. If all the other signs of freshness are still present, your fish is fresh. Wear latex gloves if you are squeamish before removing the viscera, or ask your fishmonger to do it for you.
Once you master fabricating a whole fish, you will not only be able to portion out your own size pieces, but you can also save the scraps and bones to make your own stock for sauces, soups and broth. The smaller tailpiece can be used for fish cakes or salad. If you are more of a culinary adventurist, you can cure or smoke it or add it to your stock for a rich fish stew. Most importantly, when buying a whole fish and following the criteria above, you will be confident it is fresh when you purchase it.
Buy from sustainable sources with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo. Good management procedures ensure healthy fish for generations and healthy thriving ocean life. Specialty fish markets and Asian or ethnic markets are also good resources for whole fish, although more traditional grocery stores are starting to carry and sell whole fish options.
Storing a Whole Fish
Ideally the fish should be unwrapped and stored in a self-draining pan filled with crushed ice. If you will be cooking it right after purchase, you can store it in the refrigerator fully wrapped until you are ready to cook.
Whether you are cooking it whole or breaking it down into portions, make sure your fish is fully scaled. Better yet, save yourself these messy steps and have your fishmonger do this part for you. Fish scales are like confetti; you will keep finding them long after the fish is gone.
2 pounds fish bones from white flesh fish*, cut into 2-inch pieces and rinsed clean of any blood
½ cup dry white wine
About 2 quarts water
1 medium onion, very thinly sliced
2 stalks celery, very thinly sliced
2 medium carrots, very thinly sliced
1 dried bay leaf
¼ cup roughly chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves and stems
4–6 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
Kosher or sea salt
In a 7- to 8-quart stockpot, combine the fish bones, white wine and just enough water to cover (you won’t need the full 2 quarts of water here). Bring to a boil, skimming off the white foam from the top of the stock as it approaches boiling, then reduce the heat so the stock simmers. (Using a ladle and a circular motion, push the foam from the center to the outside of the pot, where it is easy to remove.)
Add the onion, celery, carrots, bay leaf, parsley, thyme and peppercorns and stir them into the liquid. If the ingredients are not covered by the liquid, add a little more water. Allow the stock to simmer gently for 20 minutes.
Remove the stock from the stove, stir it again and allow it to steep for 10 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer and season lightly with salt. If you are not going to use the stock within the hour, chill it as quickly as possible. Cover the stock after it has completely cooled and keep refrigerated for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 2 months.
*While white fish is traditional, salmon can be used for a stronger fish stock.
Herb-Roasted Salmon with Fingerling Potatoes and Leeks
2 bunches leeks, trimmed and quartered lengthwise
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 pounds fresh wild salmon fillet, pin bones removed
1 pounds fingerling potatoes
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon
2 tablespoons fresh parsley
Juice of ½ lemon
Preheat the oven to 450º. Toss the leeks in a roasting pan with 1/3 cup olive oil; season with salt. Roast until slightly golden, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, place the salmon in another shallow pan and rub with the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Set aside to come to room temperature.
When the leeks are done, reduce the oven temperature to 275º. Season the salmon with salt, place over the leeks and brush with the oil in the pan. Roast until firm, approximately 12-15 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the potatoes in a pot of boiling salted water until fork-tender, about 10 minutes; drain.
Pulse the shallot in a food processor until minced. Add the butter, chives, tarragon, parsley, lemon juice and salt to taste and pulse until combined.
Remove the salmon from the oven and top with half of the herb butter; top the potatoes with the rest of the butter mixture. Slice the salmon, season with salt and serve with the leeks and potatoes.
Note: The salmon can be portioned before cooking.
If you fall into the category of not having enough time to fabricate a whole fish, consider cooking it whole.
Grilled Whole Tai Snapper with Ginger & Thai Chili Sauce
Courtesy of Executive Sous Chef Bruce Nguyen, Terranea Resort
¼ cup fish sauce
½ cup sugar, granulated or light brown
2 tablespoons distilled vinegar
1 whole garlic clove, finely minced
3 Thai chilies, finely minced
3 limes, juiced
1 cup water
1 pound Tai snapper, gutted & scaled
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ bunch cilantro
2 stalks scallions, finely chopped
1 lime cut into wedges
Combine the fish sauce, sugar, vinegar, garlic, Thai chilies, lime juice and water. Set aside. Cut 3 slits on each side of the fish toward the center. Rub with olive oil and season each side with salt and pepper. Place the fish on a hot grill, 350º. Cook approximately 6 minutes on each side.
Once the fish is cooked through, place on plate and dress with fish sauce mixture. Garnish the plate with cilantro, scallions and lime wedges. Provide additional sauce to serve with the fish.
Director of photography: Alan De Herrera
Producer: Kara Mickelson
Special thanks to:
Lost Car Chefs – Chef Apron