I grew up around fish. Spending part of my childhood living on an island–Martha's Vineyard–gave me my scaling and gutting prowess. Thanks mom and dad for entirely disregarding elementary school guidelines and letting me run wild in the woods during those–technically illegal–extra summer months. My brother worked in a fish store during those summer months as a teenager, and I used to shadow him shucking oysters and filleting fish... they kept offering me a job even though I was far under the legal minimum age, but I had sand castles and fairy houses that needed building. And then there were those nights when I'd be wrapped up in a blanket next to a fire on the beach while my dad and brother fished. They'd take home their catches–usually blue fish–and my brother would show me how to scale and gut them by flashlight. We would smoke the fish on hickory wood the whole next day and then turn it into pâté.
My ability to scale and gut became a kind of a party trick amongst the just-outside-of-Manahattan-nouveau-prep-suburbanites that made up the human backdrop of my youth. I spent one summer weekend with a school friend's family. The words WASP and G+T's should paint a pretty cohesive picture. We arrived at their beach house to find his parents in their best pastels, replenishing their gin and tonics on the back porch with a pile of fish plopped next to them in what appeared to be sea sportsman resignation in favor of happy hour. They had hired someone to take them out fishing but never thought of what to do with the fish. So I took out a pairing knife and became known there after to his parents as "fish girl". This hubristic gutting pride is probably a rebellion against my East coast prep school indoctrinations, but a fun asset in my cooking.
And now, in my twenties, spending weekends in Normandy with dozens of fish mongers to visit just a down the hill from the house, I'm in fish heaven. My cooking skills have advanced a touch since my early island days. What I love about the French approach to preparing fish is that they appreciate the importance of cooking the whole fish. In America, you'll most likely be presented with an assortment of perfectly deboned and skinned fish filets behind a glass casing. In France–and certainly in Trouville and Deauville in Normandy–where the fish is sold straight off the boat, the whole fish reigns.
This idea for this recipe came from my French boyfriend's mother, when I couldn't decide what to make for a family dinner. She couldn't recall where the recipe came from. Potentially Corsican or Iranian or entirely invented, but either way, it was mind–and palette–blowing. The only French recipe that it bears any resemblance to is Trout Amandine, invented by Napolean's chef during his trek to conquer Russia. The chef died on the journey, but the recipe prevailed. While Napoleon's recipe places the almonds on the outside in the form of a crust, in this recipe the almonds are pulverized and put inside the fish with some added spice. I added a few adornments to the almond and coriander stuffing like walnuts, dried cranberries, and the flavors were unlike anything I had tasted before. The stuffing infuses the flesh with a complexity of harmonious umami inducing tastes of spice, oils, nuttiness and sour sweetness. Make it for your next dinner party, and I promise you will shock and delight the palettes of your guests. It's a ridiculously easy recipe and will get you serious cooking kudos.
Benefit of Cooking a Whole Fish
More Flavor: The bones imbue the flesh with much more flavor than had they been removed before cooking.
Retained Moisture: Cutting off the head and tale of the fish before cooking will cause the juices to seep out. Keeping these ends intact creates a seal, allowing the fish to marinate in its own juices and flavors whilst in the oven.
The Experience: In French dining, the act of delicately separating the flesh from the skeleton is like a performance and part of the experience. The first time I witnessed this act at a restaurant, I thought it to be slightly unrefined, but it is the opposite. Knowing how to properly–and elegantly–debone a fish with the appropriate silverware is a panache of culinary etiquette.
How to Prepare a Whole Fish
Filet, Pan Seared
Whole fish (bass, cod, red snapper trout, etc), 1 fish for two people
Almond powder, 1/2 cup per fish
Fresh coriander, handful finely chopped
Walnuts, 1/4 cup finely chopped
Prepare and clean fish.
In a bowl, combine almond powder, chopped walnuts, coriander, S+P, and a drizzle of olive oil
Fill fish cavity with stuffing.
Baking at 375ºF/190ºC for 35-40 minutes. Check doneness with knife. If fish flesh is still stuck to bone, red or translucent, continue baking. You want the flesh to be opaque, flaky–not dry–and easily removed from the bone.