Over the years, my favorite dishes have often been the simplest. When the main ingredient gets treated as the absolute star, and the chef does just enough to bring out its best, the rewards can be stunning. Among the finest beneficiaries of this treatment is a fresh, whole fish one of nature's most delicious gifts. It may seem challenging, but its truly easy and tasty.
The keys to success are quality, simplicity and a little bravery. Start with fresh snapper or bass, add herbs, aromatics, and citrus to the cavity, and let it roast. Melting fat and collagen from the bones, cartilage and connective tissues will enrich the meat's flavor and texture. Follow the serving instructions below, and enjoy. You'll feel powerful and satisfied.
For two servings:
1 whole fish (1 to 2 pounds)
6 stems Italian flat leaf parsley
6 sprigs fresh thyme
6 sprigs fresh oregano
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
1 lemon, cut into thin rounds
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat the bottom of a heavy baking dish or roasting pan with oil. Sprinkle salt and pepper in pan and inside the fish's cavity. Lay whole fish on its side and fill cavity with herbs, garlic, shallot and lemon slices. Strew vegetables around fish. Cover everything with a healthy layer of salt, a bit of pepper, any extra lemon slices and another good dose of olive oil. Roast for 20 to 25 minutes. Fish is done when meat has set and feels flaky beneath the skin.
Making the cut:
Remove aromatics from cavity. Lay the fish on a cutting board with the head on the left and the tail on the right. Remove the small side fin. Make two incisions perpendicular to the length of the fish's body: one just to the right of the gills, and another just to the left of the tail. Both cuts should penetrate the flesh but not the bone.
Now, make a long incision from left to right that runs along the fish's midline, approximately where the spine would be. Again, cut deep enough to penetrate the flesh without cutting the bone. Peel back two filets starting from the center cut you just made, using either the back of your knife or the side of a fork (or your fingers if you are dining alone) to pull the flesh away from the bones. You should now be looking at the fish's skeleton.
Acting gingerly, grab the tail end of the spine and lift gently toward the head. The bones should pull away from the flesh on the bottom, and you should be able to lift from the tail, all the way to the head, in one slow motion, to remove the entire skeleton. Use your chosen utensil to follow beneath the bones to make sure none are left behind. At this point, you should have one large, bone-free filet left on the cutting board. Move this to the serving platter.
That's it, unless you want to excavate the head for its many pleasures, notably the meat found just behind the jaw, and the eyeballs, which are pleasant and offer an irresistible opportunity to impress and disgust your kids.