What do you make when a fellow culinary grad comes over for dinner? Leave it up to me and it will be an experiment.
For a week, I asked myself what to cook. I didn't want it to be ordinary, and I needed to be sure the meal didn't contain dairy (her boyfriend, who was accompanying her, has related allergies). Why not roast a whole fish in salt, I thought? It's not something I've personally done, but I've tasted it and loved every bite. Plus, my friend is a salt addict—she literally has spent hundreds of dollars on different types from around the world.
The decision was made. On the day of the party, I went grocery shopping in order to secure the freshest fish. The plan was to get a 4-pound fish—preferably a wild striped bass or red snapper—and we could share it. Turns out, I couldn't find a fish that large anywhere. Instead, I ended up with two 2-pound red snapper. The fish were gorgeous and, as it turns out, were a perfect size for my oven. I would have been screwed with a 4-pound fish.
The dish turned out amazing. My friend and I ended up working on it together—a fun, interactive dinner party experience and something we haven't done since culinary school. We loved how impressive the presentation was when we peeled off the salt crust. I think we heard a few "oohs" and "aahs" from the guys, too.
Whole Red Snapper in a Crust of Salt (adapted from chef Jonathan Waxman via Saveur)
Yield: 4 servings
6 large egg whites
3 1/2 pounds kosher salt
Zest of 1 lemon
2 whole red snapper, about 2 pounds each, cleaned and scaled
1 lemon, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 lime, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 blood orange, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 cup flat-leaf parsley
2 rosemary sprigs
2 oregano sprigs
2 thyme sprigs
2 tarragon sprigs
4 cloves garlic
1-ounce piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Beat egg whites in a bowl until foamy, then gradually whisk in salt until mixture is slightly moist and has the texture of cornmeal; add a bit of water if necessary. Stir in lemon zest.
2. Pour enough salt mixture onto a sheet pan to form a bed for the fish. (I didn't use parchment paper on the sheet, but it would probably be a good idea as the salt was a pain to scrape off after cooking. You can moisten both sides of the parchment with water.) Place the fish on top of the bed. If it's too long for the pan, trim it's tail. Repeat with second fish.
3. Stuff each fish with half the citrus fruits, herbs, garlic and ginger. Be careful not to overstuff the fish or force in the ingredients—you want the fish to somewhat retain their shape. Pat half of the remaining salt mixture around the top and sides of one fish to form a crust; it's OK to cover the entire fish or leave part of the head and tail peeking out a bit. Repeat with second fish.
4. Bake about 25-30 minutes or until the salt begins to slightly color. Tap knife along the edge of crust to crack the salt and gently lift away from the skin. Portion the fish in filets and serve.
I would love to try this on a grill—if I had one. But that won't stop me from making it again in my miniature New York oven. When I do break out the recipe a second time, I'll be sure to pair it again with the duck fat-fried potatoes sprinkled with Maldon smoked sea salt and invite my friend over to make her maple-bacon doughnuts, which had a perfect salty-sweet balance.
The phrase "feeling salty" may have taken on a new meaning.