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Whole fish, oven roasted -- I need a debriefing.

  • CindyJ Feb 17, 2012 06:20 PM
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My first experience oven roasting a whole fish was a big disappointment, and I really need to know what I should have done differently so that my next attempt (assuming there IS a next attempt) is more successful.

I bought two whole, cleaned oratas at Wegmans today. They met all the requirements for freshness, and I'm sure they were quite fresh. When I got them home, I poked around online for instructions/recipes. Fortunately, there was a lot of consistency in what I saw, so I felt good about what I planned to do. I watched this Melissa Clark video http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/25/din... and based on what I saw, decided to do the fish "Mediterranean style" using rosemary, garlic, lemon slices and garlic in the cavity, along with salt and pepper.

I thought I ought to rinse the fish and pat it dry before cooking. Remember, this is my FIRST time with a whole fish, and I didn't really think about what the fish cavity would look like. So... observation #1: there was something that looked like a dark, bloody "vein" running along the backbone on the inside. Is that normal, or was the fish not cleaned properly? I poked around the inside with paper towels, and rinsed it under running water, and tried to remove as much of that messy stuff as possible. Observation #2, there was "stuff" hanging from stringy things on the inside. This is sounding totally gross, and I'm sorry, but I made a decision to remove from the cavity anything that didn't look like something I'd want to eat.

Okay, now the fish was cleaned to my satisfaction. In the video, Melissa Clark seasoned the cavity with S&P and then stuffed it with sprigs of rosemary, lemon slices and garlic. I did the same; I also used some sprigs of fresh thyme. I attempted to do as Melissa did, but I found the cavities on my fish much smaller than on the Orata Melissa was stuffing in the video. No problem -- I put in as much as I could. Then I brushed the outsides with olive oil, put the two fish on a baking sheet and put them into a hot (450 degrees) preheated oven. I let them roast for 15 minutes. When I took them out, the fish was opaque and appeared to be cooked properly.

Now for the disappointing part -- the fish was pretty tasteless... bland... blah. I thought the flavors of the rosemary, thyme, garlic and lemon would come through -- it didn't. We sprinkled the fish with some Maldon sea salt flakes and squeezed on some fresh lemon juice. That was an improvement, but the fish was still pretty bland. Let me add that I've often had whole roasted fish in restaurants and I've enjoyed it immensely; this fish just seemed to have no flavor.

I don't know what, if anything, I could have done differently. Was it the fish I chose? Should I have bought the branzino instead of the orata? I really want to improve the result, but I'm clueless as to how. Yes, I've seen recipes for salt-baked whole fish, and maybe that would be better, but that wasn't what I was trying to do. I wanted a simple-but-delicious Mediterranean style whole fish that would leave me wanting more. This dish went mostly uneaten.

What should I do differently if I decide to try this again? Thanks so much for your insight!

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  1. I would have wrapped it in foil and put a little white wine in the cavity. That's how I learned to cook a whole salmon.

    1 Reply
    1. re: GH1618

      Yes... that's another way to approach it. I also could have poached them. But I wanted to try oven-roasting.

    2. Too bad! Don't give up. Personally, I don't think that flavorings in the cavity of a modestly sized roasted fish are very effectively passed along to the flesh, unless you go with an enclosed environment like salt or parchment.

      If you've had roasted whole fish at restaurants and liked it better, I'd bet it's from stronger seasonings to the exterior of the fish and perhaps also some high heat at some point to affect the browning of the skin. When I roast whole fish, I score the flesh deeply and usually use olive oil and chiles and spices to amp up flavors. Did you score the flesh?

      Edit: I've had Branzino around here but never saw Orata. I think that both are, however, pretty mild fish varieties and roughly akin.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Bada Bing

        I didn't score the flesh, but maybe I should have. I think next time I'm at my favorite Greek restaurant in NYC (Periyali), I'll ask them how they get their fish to be so delicious.

        Wegmans, where I bought the fish, started carrying whole, fresh Branzino and Orata a few months ago. I read somewhere that they're farm-raised upstate NY, so they can be delivered to most Wegmans' locations overnight.

        1. re: CindyJ

          It's been a while since I had dinner at Periyali (used to work across the street when it first opened and was a regular), but I know they charcoal grill a lot of their fish and shellfish. You can see and taste the char on the octopus. That would certainly contribute at least some of the flavor you're looking for.

          1. re: JoanN

            Their grilled octopus is the main reason I keep going back there! But I don't think the whole fish is grilled. Then again, maybe it is, and that would make a HUGE difference. I MUST find out next time I'm there.

      2. Cindy if you've never tried a salt dome it's worth a try. The fish doesn't come out salty and it's a little fun to crack it open to reveal a very moist tender fish. Just brush off any residual salt from the skin and serve.

        3 Replies
        1. re: scubadoo97

          Other than being "gimicky," what does the salt dome actually do?

          1. re: CindyJ

            As you might know, the dome is not just salt but salt mixed usually with some egg white and water to form something almost like concrete when baked. Even moreso than cooking in sealed parchment, then, the salt dome truly steams the fish in its own juices and aromatics.

            I seldom do the method because judging doneness is tough. If you did it regularly with the same size of fish, that would be less of an issue, but because I usually come home with some random whole fish of whatever size, I find open methods like roasting and grilling to be more sure-fire.

            1. re: Bada Bing

              I've done the salt dome a few times, and it's always come out perfect. I agree, timing can be tricky, but I've found using the salt dome more forgiving when it comes to fish. Unless you're the sort that absolutely wants fish done to medium-rare, using the salt dome keeps the fish ridiculously moist, so even if the fish is overcooked a few minutes, it doesn't matter. Also, I think that because of the salt dome, heat transfer is slowed, and thus there's less of a difference between the "doneness" of the exterior and interior of the fish. Functionally, it means that overcooking slightly won't dry out the exterior.

              Using the salt dome takes more time and planning, so it's not always a logistically easy method to use. But the result from a salt dome, even if not perfectly executed, yields an excellent roasted fish, often better than a very well executed non-salt dome roasted fish. Because of the enclosure, I think it's also more effective at transferring aromas and flavors from added ingredients into the fish's flesh.

        2. Sounds to me as though you did everything right. The only part that surprises me is cooking it at 450 for 15 minutes. Perhaps your orata were very small? The standard instructions for roasting a whole fish are 15 minutes per inch of thickness @ 400F. It usually takes me about 30 minutes to roast a whole sea bass or branzino.

          Anyway, if you want to try a Mediterranean-style whole fish again, I highly recommend this one-dish meal paraphrased from a James Peterson recipe that's a staple at my house.

          Baked Whole Sea Bass with Potatoes

          1 2-lb. sea bass (can substitute red snapper, striped bass, blackfish)
          1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
          2 large potatoes, peeled, and cut into 1/8-in. slices
          2 garlic cloves, finely chopped.
          1/2 tsp. finely chopped fresh thyme, or 1/4 tsp. dried
          Salt and pepper to taste
          3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped (I usually use plum tomatoes)
          15 brine-cured (not canned) black olive, pitted and coarsely chopped

          Rinse fish in cold water. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

          Coat bottom of an oval baking dish with olive oil and arrange an overlapping layer of potatoes on top. Sprinkle potatoes with garlic, thyme, olive oil, and s&p and continue layering potatoes with herbs and spices until you've used up all the potatoes. Bake potatoes for 20 min.

          Rub fish with olive oil, season with s&p, and place on top of potatoes. Sprinkle chopped tomatoes and olives around fish and bake about 30 min., or 15 minutes per inch of thickness.

          2 Replies
          1. re: JoanN

            I found the fish to be cooked through -- maybe because I used the "true convection" setting on my oven. The two fish, together, weighed about 2.25 pounds.

            I have Peterson's "Fish & Shellfish" although I have to admit, I rarely turn to it. Thanks for reminding me about it; maybe I need to revisit it. A question about your recipe -- does the fish skin stay on the fish, or does it stick to the potatoes?

            1. re: CindyJ

              That recipe is a standard for me too, it's terrific. And no, the skin does not stick to the potatoes -- you have oiled the fish, remember.

          2. You needed lots of salt on the outside, as well as other seasonings. I agree with Bada Bing that things in the fish cavity don't necessarily flavour the fish well enough to be noticeable. Especially - I mean think about it - you're only roasting for 15 minutes. Just barely long enough to cook the fish (which is good) but the heat won't transfer much to the herbs and lemon in the cavity so there's not going to be much flavour or aroma released. Next time, chop up garlic, rosemary, thyme and whatever else you like with plenty of salt (and I mean plenty of salt) and olive oil. Brush this on the skin - both sides and inside the fish. If you want to throw a bunch of lemon slices in the cavity, fine, but it will only give you a subtle lemon flavour. (Serve the fish WITH fresh lemon instead for a more intense hit.)

            I like roasted fish to have slightly crisp skin so I prefer not to wrap in foil (that just steams the fish - which is fine if you want steamed fish). And I've never tried doing the salt baked thing although I've eaten it and it's delicious. Try it again - definitely - before jumping ship.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Nyleve

              I have to say, when it comes to cooking fish at home, I've had far more misses than hits. I don't know why that is. I'm not one to give up easily, but it all leaves me wondering whether I should leave fish preparation to the restaurants that do it well. If there's one consolation about last night's effort, it's that the price of the fish was only $5.99/lb. I've also done a horrible job with halibut filets, at around $20/lb -- now THAT hurt!

              1. re: CindyJ

                A lot of restaurants grill their fish - if you're having whole fish - which in my opinion is the best way to cook it. (Use similar seasoning method, place in a fish basket and grill on both sides until lightly charred and cooked through.) My other regular thing to do with a whole fish is to dust it with seasoned flour and pan fry it in butter or olive oil until the skin is crisp and the fish is cooked. I think what makes both of those methods good is the caramelization from the high heat and the fact that the seasonings on the outside almost vaporize into the flesh.

            2. I think scoring would make a big difference. I fixed 2 small rainbow trout the other day ("deep fried" them in a pan on the stove though) and sort of followed a recipe for spicy thai whole fried fish I found online. There was a tasty marinade that was patted all over and inside the fish, with special attention given to making sure some made it into the cuts.

              My fish was very tasty, even without the sauce, so I think the scoring must have made the difference.
              BTW, I always remove all guck from the inside as well--same with chicken, altho I with the latter I only grab and pull without rinsing.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Transplant_DK

                This was my first peek into a "gutted and cleaned" fish. I expected it to be cleaner.

                Scoring seems to be a good idea; I'll definitely do that (assuming I do whole fish again).

              2. A generous dressing of good olive oil, lemon and green onion on top would have been nice. That's how they do the whole Greek style fish where I get it. This place does it over a wood fire though.

                1 Reply
                1. re: kengk

                  I did use a drizzle of a really nice, Spanish olive oil on top, along with a generous squeeze of fresh lemon. I think what was missing was the wood fire.