There's nothing my dad likes better than a nice piece of fresh fish.
He doesn't care about the plating, he doesn't want a sauce or a garnish. His Platonic ideal of fish -- hopping fresh, plainly prepared -- is a taste memory that dates back to Pericles' Athens -- or at least to the heyday of Lundy's in Sheepshead Bay.
Over the years, Lenny Marcus has become an accomplished fish cook. He has established relationships with fishmongers. He appreciates the subtle differences among snapper, pompano, striped bass. He has a particular love of halibut. He has perfected the restaurant technique of searing fillets on one side in an ovenproof skillet, then slipping the skillet into the oven so they finish cooking.
But he will not cook a whole fish.
Time and again, I have laid out the merits of this method, but he has resisted. He thinks it's a big deal, he thinks he'll screw it up. And this is a man who knows how to take apart a whole cooked fish -- I've seen him do it dozens of times in restaurants.
Dad knows, instinctively, that the prime virtue of cooking a fish whole is that it tastes better. Fish cooked on the bone, sealed in by its own skin, achieves a succulence and savor impossible to replicate with fillets or steaks.
Also, cooking it whole is really the best way to cook fish for company. That fillet-skillet trick works great for one or two, but it's smarter to cook one big fish for four -- or a behemoth for six.
The real no-brainer here is that roasting a whole fish is very easy. Here's how to do it: Place fish on a baking sheet. Roast.
OK, there's a little more to it. But not much.
WHICH FISH TO ROAST
You could roast any fish, but round fish such as snapper and bass are easier to handle than flat fish like fluke and flounder. Very bony fish such as porgy will be more difficult to carve once cooked. My favorite fish to roast whole are red snapper, striped bass, pompano and orata (daurade). I'm seeing more and more branzini in the markets and, at about one pound, they make a good serving for one.
PREPARING THE FISH
The first few prep steps will be performed by your fishmonger: Ask him to gut and scale the fish and to trim off the fins.
At home, find a baking pan larger than your fish. (To prevent sticking, line it with parchment paper.) Place the fish on the pan, coat it with olive oil and sprinkle both sides, generously, with salt and pepper. Nemo could go into the oven at this point, but it's nice to stuff the fish's cavity with some lemon slices and fresh herbs. Parsley is a classic; I particularly like thyme or oregano. Rosemary would work well with a strongly flavored fish, should you find yourself with a whole bluefish or mackerel.
I like to scatter thin lemon slices under and around the fish; while the fish roasts, the lemon will caramelize and become delicious. You also could strew thin slices of fennel or onion around the fish.
HOW HOT? HOW LONG?
Roast fish in a hot oven, 400 to 450 degrees, so you get browning and maybe even a little char on the skin. The smaller the fish, the hotter the oven. As for timing, the rule of thumb is 15 minutes for each inch of thickness at the fish's fattest point. I recently cooked a 1-pound branzino at 450 degrees for 18 minutes; a 2-pound red snapper at 425 degrees for 30 minutes; a 3 1/2-pound red snapper at 400 degrees for 40 minutes.
As with meat and poultry, the best method for testing for doneness is to use an instant-read thermometer. Pierce the fish, horizontally, just above the backbone so that the thermometer slides in parallel to the surface of the pan. (If you just pierce the skin vertically, you'll make an unsightly hole.) The thermometer should register between 135 and 140 degrees.
Without a thermometer, stick a knife horizontally into the fish from the backbone; the meat should be opaque and lift easily away from the bone. Easier, though more intrusively, use a sharp knife to make a small gash in the thickest part of the fish. Meat should be opaque all the way to the bones.
Once you take the fish out of the oven, let it rest, five minutes for a 1-pounder, up to 15 minutes for a 4-pounder. If you've used parchment paper, it will be easy to transfer the fish to a platter; otherwise, use a thin, wide spatula and, perhaps, your hands.
Arm yourself with a sharp knife and a tablespoon.
Orientation: I'm referring to where the dorsal fin was located as the top and the fish's open belly as the bottom.
1. Holding knife horizontally, cut through the skin all along the fish's spine, from head to tail, and loosen meat from backbone. Just behind the gills, make a cut from the top of the head down to the belly. Cut through the skin and meat, but leave the head attached to the backbone.
2. Cut through the skin to bisect the length of the fish, from head to tail. At the tail, make a perpendicular cut through the skin and meat just where the fin begins. Leave the tail fin attached to the backbone.
3. With knife, spoon and/or fingers, flip the top fillet up and away from the fish. Do the same with the bottom fillet.
4. Holding the fish by the head, lift out the backbone and tail and discard. (But first extract the meat from the cheeks.) Now that the fish is splayed, use your fingers to pick out any remaining bones.
HOW TO GRILL THEM
Grilling a whole fish isn't much more difficult than roasting; there are just two challenges: heat regulation and sticking. If you have a gas grill, heat regulation is not a problem, just follow the guidelines on Bx for roasting times and temperatures. If you have a charcoal grill, you'll need a medium-hot to hot fire, and your fish should be at least 4 inches from the coals. Try to get the tail over the coolest part of the grill. Start testing the fish for doneness after it has cooked 10 minutes for each inch of thickness and when it's about halfway done (10 minutes for a smaller fish; 15 to 20 minutes for a larger fish), flip it. Whether you use gas or charcoal, cover the grill.
To ensure your fish doesn't stick, the grill should be pristinely clean. Dry the fish well with paper towels, oil it lightly all over and once you place it on the grill, do not move it for at least five minutes. To flip it, use as large and thin a spatula as you have -- or perhaps two of them. These best-laid plans, however, often result in a fish whose skin sticks to the grill. In this case, just sacrifice the skin and move on. The best method for grilling all but the smallest fish is to use a fish-grilling basket, preferably a nonstick one. Take your basket with you to the fish market and try to get a fish that fits snugly inside.
COOK'S CHEEKY REWARD
There's no way around it: If you cook a fish whole, you've got to get your hands dirty. Once you've lifted the head-backbone-tail off the fillets, the best way to remove stray bones is with your fingers. Don't be shy. (Just wash your hands first.)
Steak aficionados know that the best meat is next to the bone; the same holds true with fish. And the only way to get at these prize morsels is with your fingers. Any meat stuck to the backbone is going to be delicious and, since you're alone in the kitchen, take advantage. This is your prerogative as chef.
While you're at it, pry out the fish cheeks (just below the eyes), which many connoisseurs believe to be the best part of the fish. In Chinese restaurants, from Greenvale to Flushing to Hong Kong, I have impressed waiters by digging greedily into the fish's head. This has not always impressed my dining companions.