Celebrate with Fish
My family grew up on the Pacific coast of Peru, so we have a pretty serious love for fresh seafood. Unfortunately, these days, with apocalyptic reports that overfishing will bring us a fish-free ecosystem in the near future, it can be a challenge to navigate responsible consumption of our acquatic friends.
There are some great guides out there; mostly, they say, avoid most really big fish and stick to traditional methods of capture. The specifics, however, can be daunting: a certain fish species caught using certain methods might be A-OK in one part of the world, and entirely NOT OK in another. So though it’s wise to do your best to avoid the fish on the “avoid” list, it’s sometimes hard to get all the information necessary to make the right decision.*
As a result, if you want to feel relatively good about eating good fish and not go bankrupt, you should do it rarely, and you’ll probably have to fork over a pretty penny for the privilege regardless. In my family eating seafood has become a bit of a celebratory indulgence. Luckily, holidays call for just such an indulgence! At least, that’s the rationale I put forth to my mother in an attempt to convince her that we serve a whole fish baked in a salt crust this Thanksgiving.
The rationale here was multifaceted: Before I apall you with my unorthodoxy, or impress you with my innovative zeal, I must clarify that this was to be the second of two celebratory meals. The former was a traditional (if Peruvian-flavored) spread of turkey, sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, and the like. The second was more or less up to me.
In anticipation of some overconsumption of the traditional fowl and sides at this American occasion, I saw an incredible opportunity to both lighten up the meal and harness the celebratory occasion towards cooking a prized acquatic beast. So we pardoned the turkey and instead featured an unorthodox–but equally show-stopping, I must say–whole Red Snapper baked in salt at our evening meal.
A special secret about this dish: it’s quite spectacular, yet requires very little attention. You clean the fish, stuff it with some herbs, cover it in the salt mixture and pop it in the oven until it’s done –that’s it! When it’s ready, the salt crust will harden, requiring you to ceremoniously crack it open–an experience my brother referred to as very “carving the Turkey-esque.” The flesh turns into an amazing texture: perfectly moist and flaky, no painstaking basting and constant second-guessing required. An all-around win, I’d say. Or in the words of my brother, who doesn’t gush out compliments often, “the perfect planning for the second meal.”
In sum: Fish are a unique species who merit our appreciation and consideration. Combining a little seafood indulgence with a solid understanding of what’s happening in our ocean is a good way to do justice to the species–and hopefully keep them around a little longer.
Ceremonies like Thanksgiving are the perfect occasion to indulge ourselves, but also step back and think about the wider implications of our decisions. It may be difficult to convince yourself or your loved ones to sub this meal for the turkey, but I’d at least make the suggestion that this dish grace your table during one of the events this holiday season. I guarantee you a show-stopping conversation piece on many levels.
Recipe: Whole Fish Baked in Salt
One whole white fish, approx 3 lbs (I used Red Snapper), gutted and cleaned
1 lemon, sliced
Several sprigs of chervil or other herbs (parsley, dill)
6 bay leaves
3 lbs of salt
3 egg whites
1/2 cup water
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Rinse the fish well with cool water and pat dry. In a large bowl, whip the egg whites until foamy. Combine the egg whites with the water and the salt and mix well.
Line a large sheet pan with aluminum foil, leaving a generous overhang. Spread about half the salt mixture on the foil, creating a bed for the fish. Place three of the bay leaves on the salt and lay the fish over them. Place the remaining three bay leaves over the fish and cover with the remainder of the salt. Press down well to form a tight crust over the fish.
Bake for 20-25 minutes, according to the size of the fish (if you’re not sure, opt for less time, as it’s better to undercook it slightly than to overcook the fish and dry it out). Allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving.
To serve, use a heavy metal spoon to crack the salt crust. Remove all of the salt from the top of the fish and place into a separate dish to discard. Peel the skin back and discard. The flesh of the fish should be perfectly cooked, moist, and not very salty at all. Serve with cut lemon wedges and make sure your guests know to be careful of the bones.
*To elaborate on the above confusion, I must confess that I’m not sure whether this particular fish was a responsible buy. The sign said “wild, line-caught” red snapper, which I assumed meant it was safe for consumption without consulting where exactly it had been line-caught. Consulting this guide later left things considerably less clear.
Here are some good resources to learn more about our fish situation, and a call to think about our food more generally:
Infographic: Biomass of Popularly Eaten Fish [The Guardian]
A Clear View of Troubled Oceans [NY Times]
Seafood Watch Seafood Recommendations [Monterey Bay Acquarium]