T. Susan Chang is a New England-based freelance writer and a former Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. She also is the Boston Globe's regular cookbook reviewer, and her articles on cooking, gardening and nutrition appear in a variety of national and regional publications. You can find more information at her Web site, tsusanchang.com.
If you're like me, you know how to cook fish ... sort of. You know how to saute a couple of fillets in butter, maybe with some breadcrumbs or a flour coat. You know how to bake fish on some tin foil in the oven. Maybe you've grappled a few times with falling-apart fish cakes in a skillet. And you enjoy fried fish, as long as someone else is doing the frying.
But what about roasting fish? I can hear you flipping through the Rolodex of your culinary memory (under "R"). Roast chicken? Check. Roast turkey? Check. Roast potatoes? Check. Roast fish? Nope.
It almost seems perverse to take a fish, that wateriest of creatures, from its ocean home and subject it to the pummeling heat blast of a 450-degree oven. But it's a magical punishment, like that which turns coal into diamonds. That dry, powerful heat concentrates the fish's flavor while rapidly cooking the interior to an even, pearlescent finish. For dense cuts of fish like monkfish or salmon, or whole smaller fish, it's an elegant solution.
No watery puddle in the pan, like you have when you bake at a lower heat. No charred exterior sticking to a fishy skillet.
Most cookbooks don't seem to distinguish between "baking" and "roasting." To me, it's roasting if it happens at above 400 degrees, without added liquid other than oil. And if you sear it first in an oven-proof pan before putting it in the oven? That's pan-roasting, which is another word for "gorgeous golden-brown crust."
The first roasted fish I ever fell for was a pan-roasted monkfish with ginger, leeks and chanterelles that I spotted in Gourmet magazine. It wasn't the smartest choice for an impecunious twentysomething. I busted my budget on the monkfish and the port for the reduction, and the chanterelles must have been $16.95 per quarter-pound. I still cringe thinking about it. But what pleasure for the price. To this day, pan roasting remains my favorite way of cooking monkfish.
There are probably innumerable ways to roast a fish, but I stick with three:
1. Pan roasting: The best way by far to make the most of a flavorful, dense fillet of fish such as monkfish, salmon or Arctic char. Sear the fillet skin side up in a heavy, oven-proof pan (cast-iron works well). Then flip the fillet over and slide the pan into a 450-degree oven for 7 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillet. When you preheat the oven, put the pan in it and preheat it, too — that way, when you sear the fish, the pan will be blazing hot and give you a gilded crust without any sticking.
2. Roasting in salt: Great for whole fish, and lots of fun. You make a wet salt crust with one-third of a box of kosher salt and some egg whites and slather it over and under a whole fish. It's like building sandcastles, only edible. Then you roast the whole thing for half an hour. You smack the crust with a big spoon — CRACK!! — and the crust falls off in shards. Voila! One moist, sweet-fleshed fish to divvy up and roll in butter sauce.
3. Naked roasting: If you can't be bothered with a salt crust, you can just start with roasting a bed of vegetables — say, onions or potatoes or fennel. Halfway through, drop the oiled and seasoned fish, whether whole or in thick fillets, on top and pop it in the oven for a similar effect. It's slightly less moist and sweet, but still densely flavorful.
At its best, a roasted fish has a tender, moist interior that comes away on the fork in thick, smooth chunks. I don't know exactly why, but it's harder to overcook a roasted fish than a sauteed one. Maybe it's because 400-degree air is a strong but gentle heat. It cooks more slowly and evenly than a blazing, 700-degree metal pan surface. Roasting also seems to concentrate the fish's natural, delicate flavor. That briny, almost nutty, sweetness is something completely apart from the fishy smell of a fried-seafood shack, or even the salt and pepper you might have used for seasoning.
For many people, eating fish at all has become something of an indulgence (though, paradoxically, one that's good for you). We worry about overfishing and mercury contamination. Or, on a more practical level, we can't cope with the high price and perishability of fish.
The beauty of roasting is that it transforms fish into an everyday luxury, freeing cooks to be grateful once again for what we've always loved about fish. Thanks, fish, for being easy enough to cook on a week night. Thanks, fish, for being the healthiest animal protein on the planet. Thanks for your fabulous omega-3 fatty acids. Thanks for being delicious.
I used Arctic char because it was available and looked good. The crisp skin was especially delicious. Salmon would also work, or any fish with a dense-textured fillet at least 1/2-inch thick. The fish goes nicely with the lemon-dill butter from Fish Without a Doubt (Houghton Mifflin, to be published May 2008). The lemon-dill butter should be made a few hours ahead.
Makes 4 servings
1 1/2 pounds Arctic char or other fillets, skin on or off.
Salt and ground white pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon olive or grapeseed oil
Slide an empty cast-iron pan large enough to later accommodate the fillets into the oven and preheat to 450 degrees. Divide the fish into 4 pieces and season to taste. When the oven and the pan are hot, carefully pull the pan out of the oven with heavy mitts and place over high heat on the stove. Add the olive oil and immediately place the fish fillets — skin side up if you've kept the skin on — into the pan. They should sizzle instantly.
Sear for 2 to 3 minutes, until a golden-brown crust begins to form on the bottom side. Flip the fillets over to their other side and immediately slip the entire pan into the oven. Roast for 8 to 12 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets. Serve immediately with lemon-dill butter.
Combine the butter, dill and lemon zest and juice in a food processor. Process until light and fluffy. Season with salt and pack into a small bowl. Leave the butter at room temperature for about an hour for the flavors to develop.
Cover with plastic wrap and chill until firm.
Roasted Cod Fillets with Potatoes, Garlic and Olive Oil
This dish is adapted from a recipe from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (Knopf, 1992). Hazan uses bluefish, which is wonderful if you can get it fresh — oilier and denser than cod, and deeply flavored. But bluefish is very seasonal and very perishable. I usually use cod because it's always in the markets and works well (taking just a little less time than bluefish, too). Grapeseed oil, though uncommon in home kitchens, is a great favorite with chefs. It has a high smoking point and a neutral flavor. If you have it, use it for this recipe. Otherwise, any of the other oils will work fine.
Makes 4 servings
1 1/2 pounds boiling potatoes
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Black pepper, freshly ground
2 pounds thick, firm cod fillets
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Peel the potatoes, and slice them very thin, barely thicker than chips. Wash them in cold water, then pat them thoroughly dry with cloth kitchen towels.
Put all the potatoes into a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish, along with half the olive oil, half the garlic, half the parsley, several liberal pinches of salt and black pepper. Toss the potatoes 2 or 3 times to coat them well, then spread them evenly over the bottom of the dish.
Put the potatoes in the upper third of the oven and roast them for 12 to 15 minutes, until they are about half cooked.
Take out the dish, but do not turn off the oven. Put the fish fillets skin side down over the potatoes. Mix the remaining olive oil, garlic and parsley in a small bowl and pour the mixture over the fish, distributing it evenly. Sprinkle with liberal pinches of salt and black pepper. Return the dish to the oven.
After 10 minutes, take the dish out, but do not turn off the oven. Use a spoon to scoop up some of the oil at the bottom of the dish, and baste the fish with it. The potatoes at the sides of the dish will have browned while those in the center will still be moist and pale. Redistribute the potatoes with a spoon as best you can; cod fillets are pretty easy to move. Return the dish to the oven and bake for 5 to 8 more minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish fillets.
Remove the dish from the oven and allow to settle a few minutes. Serve directly from the baking dish, scraping loose all the potatoes stuck to the sides and pouring the cooking juices over each portion of fish and potatoes.
This fish and accompanying butter sauce are adapted from Fish Without a Doubt by Roy Finamore and Rick Moonen (Houghton Mifflin, to be published May 2008). I used red lane snapper, a variety of snapper that shows up in the markets at a good price sometimes. But any snapper, or any medium-sized, whole round fish such as cod or haddock (as opposed to flatfish such as flounder or plaice), will work.
Makes 2 to 4 servings, depending on the size of the fish
4 large egg whites
1/2 cup water
4 cups coarse (kosher) salt
1 whole fish (1 1/4 to 2 pounds), gutted, gills and fins removed
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil for easy cleanup. Whisk the egg whites and water in a large bowl until very frothy and about doubled in volume. Pour in the salt and mix well with your hands. You are going for something the consistency of wet sand. If crust seems dry, add a few more tablespoons water.
Pat out 1 cup of the crust mixture on the baking sheet into the size and shape of your fish. Set the fish on top and cover with the remaining crust mix. Wet your hands and pat the crust all over, smoothing it out and making sure the fish is completely sealed.
Roast smaller fish for 30 minutes, larger fish for 35 minutes.
Remove the fish from the oven and crack the crust along the sides with the back of a big spoon. Lift the crust up off the fish.
Let the fish cool for a few minutes, then peel off the skin. Slide the top fillet off the bones and serve. Grab the tail and lift up the bones. Lift the remaining fillet off the bottom crust and skin (or lift off the fillet with the skin and take the skin off separately, if that's easier) and serve with butter sauce.
Basic Butter Sauce
Finamore and Moonen recommend using an immersion blender, warning that an ordinary blender won't emulsify the sauce properly. That may be so, but since I don't have an immersion blender, I used an ordinary one, and the results were terrific. I can't say the same for a food processor. There aren't enough shallots, so they would miss the blade or ride up the side in a wide carafe.
1/2 cup sliced shallots
3/4 cup water
1 sprig thyme
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
Put the shallots, water and thyme in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook at a low boil until the shallots are very soft and the water has reduced to a generous 1/4 cup.
Remove the thyme and turn the heat to low. Remove the shallots to a blender and puree for about 30 seconds. Add a piece of butter and continue to puree, emulsifying the water and butter. Continue adding the butter piece by piece, incorporating each bit of butter before adding another. The sauce will become light and very pale yellow. Strain the sauce through a fine sieve, pushing down on any solids that remain with a wooden spoon. Return the sauce to the pan. Season with salt.
You can serve the sauce right away or keep it warm at the back of the stove for an hour or so, giving it a whisk once in a while.
I used branzino, a common Mediterranean fish with dense white flesh, but again, a small bass or any medium round fish will do. You can add other vegetables that go well together, such as tomatoes or zucchini, to the roast-vegetable mix. They'll add their aroma to the cooked fish without affecting the cooking time or technique.
Makes 2 to 4 servings, depending on the size of the fish
1 whole fish (1 to 2 pounds), scaled, gilled and gutted
1 fennel bulb, sliced cross-wise into 1/4-inch-thick slices
1 onion, sliced cross-wise into 1/4-inch-thick slices
Olive oil (enough to lightly film both fish and vegetables)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Toss the vegetables in olive oil and salt and pepper and place in a baking dish large enough to accommodate both fish and vegetables.
Roast the vegetables for 25 to30 minutes until softened and just starting to brown. Meanwhile, rub the outside of the fish on both sides with oil and season with salt and pepper. Stir the vegetables to redistribute and place the fish on top. Roast the fish and vegetables together 20 to 25 minutes until fish is just shy of being cooked through.