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If you’re just a beginner in the world of cooking, the idea of handling and cooking a whole fish may not be at the top of your culinary "to do" list.   But I urge all of you who may only cook fish fillets or fish steaks to gather up your courage and give whole fish cookery a try. - after all, it's not as if you have to catch the fish and clean it! 

Know your fishmonger....and only buy fish where selling fish is a major category of food - not just a small section as in some supermarkets. This should ensure that the whole fish as well as fillets are as fresh as can be.  Also, take note of how the unpackaged fish is displayed - there should be lots of ice under and around the fish.  A cleaned, fresh whole fish like a red snapper, striped bass, or  Branzino will have red gills, and NO fishy odors - just the smell of the ocean. Don't be shy about asking the fish monger to hold the fish near you so you can smell it!  The nose, knows!

All Asian cuisines have some form or other of whole fish cookery and have been steaming, braising and frying whole fish for centuries. Although I love the Asian style of seasoning and cooking whole fish, I am also very fond of using Mediterranean ingredients when cooking whole fish. My favorite fish is any variety of whole snapper (red or pink) or Branzino, which can be used in the following recipe.


Roasted Red Snapper with fennel, tomatoes, black olives and white wine

You will need a whole Red Snapper, about 3-1/2 or 4 pounds before cleaning to serve 4.  If using a wild or farmed Branzino (see photo below), you will need to have probably one per person as they tend to be 1 to 1.5 pounds each.  The fish monger will scale and clean the whole fish for you.  If you have an insulated bag you can ask the fish monger for ice so you can transport the whole fish home and keep it as cold as possible. This is especially important if you live in a warm climate. 

Branzino - farmed from Greece, Italy. Also known as European Sea Bass and Loup de Mer.

Keep the fish refrigerated until just before ready to prep it.  Rinse the entire cleaned fish under cold running water, inside and out. Dry well with paper towel. Stuff the cavity with a handful of fresh lemon thyme sprigs (or regular thyme) and salt and pepper. Put the fish on a platter, cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to roast it.

Next, julienne two heads of fresh fennel. Reserve some of the green feathery tops of the fennel for a garnish. Place cut fennel in a baking dish which is long enough to hold the fish. Add ˝ cup pitted and chopped Kalamata olives, 1 tablespoon capers, 1 cup dry white wine and 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil.

Bake this mixture for 30 minutes at 350 degrees F. or until fennel is softened. In the meantime, take the fish from the refrigerator and brush with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and lightly season the outside with salt and pepper on both sides. Remove roasting pan from oven. Place prepared fish in roasting pan on top of fennel. Surround the fish with stewed tomatoes (one 14.5 oz can, plain or seasoned) and 3 sprigs of fresh oregano. One teaspoon of dried oregano can be substituted. Return pan to oven and roast fish uncovered, for 30 minutes. Test the flesh of the fish with a fork - it should  be tender and the fish should easily flake off.

To Serve

Remove whole fish to a carving board. Using a filleting knife or a  slicing knife with a thin blade, cut off two portions of the fish from one side; turn the fish over and remove two more portions from the other side. Place each fish portion on a plate and spoon some of the fennel and sauce mixture around the fish.  Garnish the plates with a sprig of the fennel tops.

Here are two suggestions for a first course salad and roasted potatoes to accompany the roasted fish:


Grilled Portabello Mushrooms, Bruschetta Toasts with Goat Cheese on Mesclun Greens

Brush two medium size Portabella mushrooms with olive oil and sprinkle with chopped fresh rosemary; grill them in a stove top grill pan or on an outside grill. When cooked through, slice each mushroom on the diagonal and place the slices on a bed of chilled Mesclun greens. Lightly drizzle a basic olive oil and vinegar vinaigrette dressing on the greens.

For the bruschetta, toast or grill four ˝-inch thick slices of good Italian or French bread and brushed them with extra virgin olive oil. Cut a peeled garlic clove in half and rub it on the Bruschetta and then spread the slices with goat cheese.


Roasted Potatoes with Rosemary

Rub 10 clean red-skinned potatoes (about 2-inch size) cut in half with olive oil and chopped fresh rosemary. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast in a 375 degree F. oven on a flat pan or cookie sheet until potatoes begin to brown and crisp, approximately 30 - 45 minutes.

Note: potatoes can also be pan-roasted on the stovetop in a large non-stick covered skillet.  Use either method and cook potatoes a couple of hours before serving.  Re-heat potatoes about 10 minutes in a hot oven just before the fish is ready to serve.

Storing Leftover Cooked Fish

Remove remaining fish meat from the fish to a plate. Discard the head and bones. Cover the plate tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Store any fennel sauce in a separate covered container. If there is enough sauce left over, it makes a delicious pasta sauce.

If you are only serving two portions of the whole roasted snapper, what to do with the leftover fish?  When serving leftovers, I don't like to have a repeat of the same dinner, so I put on my culinary thinking cap and came up with a way to use up the leftover snapper.

The next day, I made a "New England Style" fish chowder. I just made the soup according to the recipe that follows and added a portion of the cooked fish at the very end, just to reheat it in the chowder. I even used some of the left-over potatoes, cut up in the chowder. The fish chowder made a great second dinner. Along with the chowder I served a green salad and a rustic style bread, sliced and warmed - some extra virgin olive oil to dip it in would be delicious too!


New England Style Fish Chowder

2 slices bacon, cut into bits
1 medium onion, chopped
2 Tablespoons shallot, chopped
3 Tablespoons flour
8 oz. seafood stock or bottled clam juice
1 cup water
4 sprigs fresh thyme
6 small red-skinned potatoes, cut into cubes*
2 cups milk (1% fat)
2 cups leftover cooked red snapper, cut into bite sized chunks
2 Tablespoons Italian parsley, chopped

1. In a large soup or stock pot, cook bacon pieces until fat has rendered. Remove cooked bacon and drain on paper towel.

2. In fat remaining, sauté onion and shallot until softened. Stir in flour and cook with the onion for a few minutes.

3. Gradually stir in the fish stock (or clam juice), water and thyme sprigs. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and add the raw potatoes. Cover and simmer until potatoes are tender about 20 minutes. *Note: if using left over cooked potatoes simmer liquid for 15 minutes and add cooked potatoes for 5 minutes.

4. Add leftover cooked red snapper. Stir in milk and simmer until just heated through.

To serve, ladle into bowls and sprinkle each serving with reserved bacon bits and chopped parsley. Yield: 4 servings


Fish Cakes

Another idea for using leftover roasted fish, is to make fish cakes! Just use your instincts when it comes to how much of each ingredient to use.  If you have only 1 cup of left over cooked fish, then, as a guide, I would suggest no more than one tablespoon of each ingredient - and just a portion of the beaten egg.  But I'm confident that you'll instinctively know how much is too much or too little.

Mix together the remaining cooked fish with finely chopped sweet Spanish onion, capers, finely diced red pepper, chopped Italian parsley, one beaten egg and enough seasoned dry bread crumbs to hold the mixture together.

Form this mixture into 4 patties and sauté them in butter until they are lightly browned on both sides and heated through. Serve on a bed of baby greens lightly dressed with your favorite salad dressing, and you have a delicious lunch.




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