Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Chefs Don't Fear the Grouper (or other whole fish)

Totally just made a Blue Oyster Cult reference...get*cough*

I am cash-strapped until Friday so I've been repurposing my leftovers like mad. This morning I found myself staring at a generic-tupperware container of fish that I cooked last week, which ended up being whipped into an egg-white omelet and was a really really delicious breakfast. But how did that fish get into my fridge to begin with? It all starts in the Asian supermarket.

I love the Asian supermarket, its one of my happy places. I love the fish section specifically - its a huge, long area in the back of the store, with shallow pools of live crabs (several kinds of crab), oysters, clams, other mollusks, several kinds of squid and octopi, shrimp with heads and tails, omg. All live. Then they have giant tanks of live catfish, lobsters, tilapia, bass, etc. You pick out a fish, and the guys behind the counter fish it out and whack it over the head with a giant club until it dies. I kid you not - they bang live fish on the head with a wooden bat until it is dead (or at least somewhat dead - I've seen fish still alive get fileted before. FRESH.)

In addition to the live tanks, they have a HUUUUUUUUUUUGE long fresh fish section. Whole fish displayed right in the open, on ice, for you to choose. Giant red snappers, basses, trouts, salmons (they had whole salmon the other day which were at least over 4 feet long), pompano, tiny butterfish, mackerel, etcetcetc. You pick the fish you want and tell the guy how you want it prepared - you can get it whole just like that, guts and head and tail intact. Or they can clean it, remove the scales, head, etc. You can even get the whole thing fried for you right there - they'll fry it lightly or double-fry it for extra-tasty-crispy fish. Its basically the most amazing fish store ever. You'll never buy fish in your local Ralphs or Jewel again once you realize what you're missing.

Anyway, last week I noticed that the pompano looked REALLY good. Bright, firm, and fresh with clear eyes and plump little bodies. I had to have one. So I fought the throngs of shoppers (its kind of a wild place to be) and picked out the nicest looking one, and had the guy behind the counter remove the scales, guts and tail. He wrapped the rest up and I took home my whole fish (minus tail).

Have you ever cooked a whole fish before? If you have then hopefully you know how great it is, if you haven't - do not be afraid. If you get the right fish, and cook it right, you 1) won't stink up your entire house, and 2) won't miss out on all the tastiest parts of the fish (I'm talking the HEAD MEAT - its the best).

Some very good forgiving non-stinky fishes for attempting this are: pompano, tilapia, butterfish, and small snappers. Only attempt oilier (and therefore fishier) fishes if you are a seasoned pro - such as mackerels. If you have an oven large enough to cook an ENTIRE salmon - can I come over?

Roasted Whole Pompano

1 whole pompano fish, cleaned and scales/tail removed (keep head on)
4 garlic cloves, sliced thin
1 lemon - 1/2 sliced into thin discs, the other half reserve for juice
Sea salt
Black pepper

And that's it.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Take your whole fish and give it a good rinsing. Pat it dry. Name it if you want - its going to watch you prepare it, so make peace with it now.

Using a very sharp knife, slice 4 slits in each side of the fish, running from the top to the bottom. Don't cut it all the way in half - what we're doing is just "scoring" the skin so the meat can cook. As fish meat cooks, it plumps up a little, so it needs room to move.

Inside each slit in the fishes sides, stick the slices of garlic. Cover each side of the fish with a LITTLE bit of salt and pepper - a little goes a LONG way. Its been living in salt water its whole life, it doesnt need to drown in it now.

Place the slices of lemon and more garlic if you want inside the belly of the fish. Its been cut open to remove the guts.

Before place in the oven, use the rest of the lemon to cover the fish with juice. If you are feeling punchy, put a garlic clove in its mouth. This is just for style though.

Cook your fish until its done. It does not take very long, so keep an eye on it! Maybe 20 minutes or so, but it depends how big and thick your fish is. Keep an eye on it.

When its done, the meat will be opaque, white and flaky. The skin may stick at first to the meat, but you can carefully pull it apart.

There is very tasty meat behind the fishes eye and above near its skull. Do not be afraid to pick around in there to get it. In traditional Chinese households, the guest of honor is served the head meat because it is apparently the most succulent (so I was told when I was the guest of honor in a Chinese household.)

Serve with roasted vegetables, salad, rice pilaf, etc. Properly stored, leftovers last up to a week (though if you have a lot of people you probably won't have leftovers). And never be afraid of the whole fish again!

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