Text by Domenica Marchetti, Special to The Washington Post
Once you learn how to fillet a whole roasted fish, you just might be hooked. Why roast with the head on? Because there is good meat around the collarbone and in the cheeks. It looks dramatic (even if you end up filleting the fish). And it's simply easier to remove the head after the fish is cooked; it comes off with the skeleton.
Fish can vary widely in size and in flavor. Choose one (or two) that will fit on a standard baking sheet. Rockfish, snapper and branzino have firm, sweet, mild-tasting flesh, while oilier silver fish such as mackerel and pompano have a buttery, more assertive flavor.
It may help to have an instant-read thermometer and a thin fish spatula.
Image: Tom McCorkle; Food Styling: Lisa Cherkasky for the Washington Post
ROASTED WHOLE FISH
One 2- to 3-pound whole fish, such as rockfish (Maryland striped bass) or snapper; or two smaller fish, such as branzino, scaled, gutted and gills removed (with head, tail, fins left on)
About 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or more as needed
Freshly ground black pepper
1 clove garlic, minced or sliced paper-thin
Large handful of mixed fresh herb sprigs, such as marjoram, parsley, oregano, thyme, fennel fronds and/or dill
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil.
Place the fish on a cutting board, and pat the cavity dry with paper towels. Use a sharp knife to cut three deep (to the bone), diagonal slits on both sides of the fish. Rub the inside and outside of the fish with 2 tablespoons of the oil, then season with salt and pepper. Transfer to the baking sheet.
Sprinkle the garlic into the cavity of the fish and stuff in a handful of the herb sprigs, reserving some for plating. Slice half of the lemon into thin rounds. Place 3 rounds inside the cavity. Insert the remaining rounds into the three slits on the side of the fish facing up; you may have to cut the rounds into half-wheels to fit them.
Roast the fish, uncovered (middle rack), until the flesh is just firm and flaky, for 20 to 25 minutes for a 2-pound fish, or until its interior temperature registers between 130 and 135 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Let it rest for 5 minutes.
Now comes the fun part: carving the fish. Have a clean serving plate at the ready. First, remove the pin bones along the back of the fish by cutting away the dorsal fin - follow the line of the fish's back from just below the head to the tail and scrape away the seam of fin and bones. (Tweezers are a good tool for removing pin bones.)
Next, separate the head and collarbone from the top fillet, following the natural line where they meet and cutting about halfway through the fish. Separate the top fillet from the tail in the same way. If you want to leave the top fillet whole, slide a long spatula (there's a reason those flimsy metal fish spatulas exist) under the top fillet to separate the meat from the spine. Carefully flip the fillet onto the serving platter so that it is skin-side down.
Alternatively, cut the top fillet in half lengthwise, slicing down the length of the fish with a knife to separate the dorsal meat from the belly meat. Then flip each long piece of fillet carefully onto the serving plate so that both pieces are skin-sides down. Remove any pin bones along the way as you work.
Starting at the tail, gently pull up and remove the fish's skeleton. The head should come off with it. Scrape away the garlic, herbs and lemon slices and remove any bones from the bottom fillet. Cut that fillet in half lengthwise, if you like, then transfer the pieces, skin-sides down, to the serving platter.
Drizzle a little oil over the fillets, and squeeze the reserved lemon half over them. Garnish the platter with reserved herb sprigs, and serve.
From cookbook author and food writer Domenica Marchetti.
Feature Image: Chelsea Zimmer; Prop Styling Mindi Shapiro, Health.com