In Praise of Cooking Whole Fish

Though my first foray into cooking whole fish is relatively recent, I have come to the conclusion that cooking fish whole is far easier and more delicious than dealing with fillets. Not that I’m ready to give up fillets anytime soon; fillets allow you to be a bit more creative with glazes, crispy coatings and sauces, but the flavour and ease of cooking whole fish carry a lot of merit.

Big or small, roasted, barbequed or poached, it all works. Cooking on the bone gives a ton of flavour and protects the fish a bit from overcooking. (It also helps avoid the panic-inducing fillet flip, not always effortlessly accomplished.)

The question I hear most often about cooking whole fish is, “What about the bones?“. Yes, there are bones. You eat around the bones by dragging the flesh off with a fork (and knife, in some cases), discarding bones as you go. It’s a little labour intensive, but I like to think of it as the equivalent of cracking whole nuts at Christmas: it’s part of the ritual. There will be instances where a rogue bone ends up in one’s mouth, but with swift action it gets relegated to the side of the plate; nothing to be afraid of.

Baked Whole Fish

The easiest way to cook whole fish of any size is roast it. Ask for it scaled and cleaned (i.e. guts removed), then take it home and give it a rinse with cold water, inside and out. Pat dry with paper towel, then slash both sides with a knife down to the bone to allow the flavour to permeate and the fish to cook a little more evenly. Season the fish inside and out with salt and pepper, then stuff the cavity with slices of onion and lemon, and a few sprigs of parsley. Smear a little butter in the cavity and a little more on top.

Place the whole fish in a parchment-lined, high-sided baking dish. Bake at 375F / 190C / 175C Fan until cooked. (Use a knife to flake off a bit of the flesh near the head – the thickest part – and if it flakes away, it’s done.) Cooking times vary from 10 minutes to 40 minutes, depending on the size of the fish. (For a fish large enough to feed one, check at 10 minutes. Check at 20 minutes for a fish to feed two, and so on.) Bring the whole baking dish straight to the table and allow everyone to just dive in. Serve with lots of bread and a beautiful salad, such as a big green salad, this tomato salad, this avocado and grapefruit salad, or a big dish of roasted Mediterranean vegetables. Don’t forget the bottle of white wine and a spare plate for the bones.

BBQ Whole Fish

Barbequing whole fish is so much easier than you’d think. The fish takes on a wonderfully smoky flavour and the skin gets really crisp.

You do have to flip it, but the skin offers a bit of protection and there’s no danger of the whole thing splitting in two, unlike with an individual fillet. If you need a little encouragement, read about my first foray into grilling trout here.

Whole mackerel, cleaned and heads removed. Season with salt and pepper and BBQ for 5 minutes a side

As the BBQ is a more intense heat, go for oilier fish such as mackerel, trout or salmon. Rinse, slash and season, then stuff with sliced lemon, onion, and herbs. Smear on a little butter and cook for 5 – 15 minutes a side, depending on size, and baste with a little melted butter after flipping. Serve with a salad and a chilled bottle of rosé.

Poached Whole Fish

Soups, stews and curries are all made by simmering fish in liquid – heads included – and are all the better for it.

Bream poached in a broth of vegetables, white wine, herbs and water

This is one of the simplest recipes for cooking fish in broth:

To start, you’ll need a shallow, wide pot with a lid. Sautee onion, carrot and fennel in olive oil, then add garlic, chilli, olives and tomatoes. Slosh in some white wine and water, season, then lay the fish on top. Clamp on a lid and let boil away for 10 minutes or so, until the fish is cooked. The water becomes an intense, fragrant broth and the fish is delicate and sweet. A sprinkling of fresh parsley and lots of crusty bread are the only last-minute requirements.

I love the interactive nature of a dish like this. Everyone diving in with spoons, forks and hunks of bread – a real shared experience.

Served after a decent first course, a dish like this would feed four people generously. Prepared in under 30 minutes, start to finish, you have a meal that will really get people talking.

Bream poached in a broth of vegetables, white wine, herbs and water

On Health and Sustainability

One thing these meals all have in common is how good for you they are. Fish is very much part of a healthy diet and we should be eating more of it. These meals are quick to prepare, inexpensive and usually involve a good few servings of vegetables. All the more reason to try them out.

With that said, health isn’t just about us; we all have the power to choose fish that is sustainably sourced. I am by no means an expert and I can’t bear a food lecture, so I’m not about to inflict that on you, dear reader. I harbour no intentions other than promoting good food and a bit of common sense. I wouldn’t buy anything that has been flown across the world to reach me. I do buy farmed fish, but given the option I’ll take something local and line-caught any day.

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