The first time I ate a whole fish by myself, I kid you not, I was 22 years old.
We spent a month at my in-laws (or at the time rather in-laws-to-be), and if this sounds insane to you, picture a small island in the Adriatic, bedroom with a window facing the sea, endless summer nights.
Not so insane after all. Or at least beautiful enough to endure the slight awkwardness of the situation.
One morning my father-in-law had gotten the best fish off the market. By the time I had crawled out of bed, Brani’s mama was already busy gutting and cleaning them.
Needless to say, I was incredibly grossed out.
Just like I used to shun any kind of meat containing bones, strings, blood or even just a bit of fatty tissue, I used to stay away from bone-in fish.
Fine, I ate salmon fillets (which still terrified me) and chicken breast.
Truthfully, I haven’t always been a keen eater, especially not during my teen and early adulthood years.
Learning to eat meat and fish off the bone wasn’t just an act of overcoming the yuck-factor.
It was very much an act of learning to eat with joy instead of guilt, realizing I’m capable of eating food that didn’t seem safe, protecting my future children from picking up bad eating (or rather not-eating) habits in what should be the safe haven of our own family dinners.
So the mere fact of eating a fish, head to tail so to speak, was a beautiful yet terrorizing battle taking place within my mind.
I didn’t know Brani’s parents well enough to be even remotely comfortable showing tears, fear or reluctance.
Brani had grilled the fish out in the hot and sultry Croatian summer sun, until their skin was blackened and their flesh was infused with the olive oil and fragrant fresh herbs he had used.
We ate indoors, in the climatized open-plan kitchen from the 80ies, on the same yellow-rimmed plates my dad had once given my mom.
It had been his final gift to her, a fact that only added to the heinous dramaturgy of the situation.
Had the custom been to clean the fish with fork and knife, I’m not sure I would have made it through that lunch.
But thankfully I could remove each small and pointy bone with my fingers, feeling the hard skeleton amidst the soft flesh, until I was left with a pile of white and flaky fillet.
I hadn’t experienced food in such a sensual and at the same time deeply agonizing way before, but as ridiculous as it might sound, I came out the other end a stronger woman.
These days I have not a single issue whatsoever with preparing and eating grilled or baked whole fish.
In fact, it’s quite simple, and I know you can do it, too.
If you buy a whole fish that’s gutted and scaled, all that left for you to do is adding delicious flavors. I used sea bream, but you could also go for sea bass or branzino.
Here you’re going to make a bit of compound garlic butter with fresh herbs, simply seasoned with a bit of salt and pepper.
That’s what you’ll stuff inside the cavity of the fish, alongside a few juicy lemon slices and a handful of rosemary sprigs.
Drizzle with olive oil and season with a bit more salt.
Place the fish in a roasting tin, bedded on fresh thyme, extra lemon and a few garlic cloves.
25 minutes in the oven later, you have an incredibly flavorful yet simple dinner on the table.
Honestly, I almost didn’t post this because I forgot to slash the sides of the fish. I think you’ll forgive me when I remind you that I have two incredibly hungry, fish-loving bear cubs in the kitchen with me at all times.
We enjoy it in a pretty purist fashion, with a briny caper, olive and dried tomato salsa, a simple seasonal salad (something like this fennel, citrus and avocado salad) and maybe a slice of bread on the side. I never feel the need to add another starchy side dish.
The modern way to eat, after all, isn’t tied to the meat-two-veg-starch template in any way. And buying fish and meat in a modern world doesn’t mean only eating the fillet, either.
We eat a lot of vegetarian meals, but when we do buy fish, I now always prefer to buy the whole fish. Not only will it be a lot more flavorful and juicy than roasting a fillet, but I prefer using the whole animal instead of picking out the prime pieces.
And this year on our summer vacation? I have set myself a goal, a personal challenge so to speak. I’m going to learn how to gut and scale a fish from my in-laws.
Fingers crossed I make it without fainting.
How to make baked whole fish:
For the fish
- 2 large whole fishes, such as sea bream, sea bass or branzino
- 1 heaping tablespoon softened butter
- 1 head garlic, 2 cloves minced and the rest left whole
- 1 tablespoon chopped rosemary, plus extra sprigs for stuffing
- 1 tablespoon thyme leaves, plus extra sprigs for baking
- salt + pepper
- 1 lemon, sliced and then cut into triangles
- Olive oil
For the salsa
- 4 large sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
- 1 heaping tablespoon capers, chopped
- 2 tablespoons green olives, stoned and chopped
- 1 handful parsley leaves, chopped
- Olive oil
- If the fish hasn't been gutted and scaled, do so.
- Heat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Prepare a roasting tin.
- Mix the butter, 2 minced garlic cloves, chopped rosemary and chopped thyme very well. Season well with salt and pepper.
- Spoon the compound butter into the fish cavities. Stuff the inside of the fish with lemon triangles (you will probably not be able to fit all of them into your fishes) and rosemary sprigs. Drizzle the fish with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. You can slash the fish two to three times if you like.
- Place the fish in the prepared tin, along with the extra thyme, garlic and remaining lemon slices. Bake for 20-25 minutes (a large sea bream takes about 25 minutes, branzino is probably ready after 20).
- In the meantime, mix the chopped tomatoes, capers, olives and parsley. Add enough olive oil to create a nicely dispersed condiment. Serve with the hot fish.