Derek dos Anjos, chef/owner of The Anchor in Over-the-Rhine, offers a foundational lesson in cooking a whole fish.
photos by Julie Kramer
When environmental writer Tom Ewing proposed a report on oceans, our thoughts turned to how we could connect Ohio Valley home cooks with Tom’s story. So we decided to spotlight whole fish in this One Ingredient column. Trouble was, none of us had ever cooked a whole fish. A salmon fillet or piece of sea bass, sure, but not a clean-it-yourself, head-and-tail-still-on whole fish. Wisely, we turned to an expert: Chef Derek dos Anjos of The Anchor in Over-the-Rhine met us at Artichoke at Findlay Market for a demonstration and tasting. Here is his lesson.
Your first imperative when cooking a whole fish is to start with a really good, very fresh one. Dos Anjos says to look at the clearness of the eyes; if they’re cloudy or dark, the fish isn’t fresh. Ask your fishmonger to take it out of the case; the flesh should be firm to the touch, the gills nice and pink, and the tail and fins unbroken. Fish should smell like the ocean (“fishy isn’t a bad thing,” dos Anjos says), but not musty or funky like algae. A 1½ to 2 pound fish serves two people.
Choosing & Cleaning
For grilling, dos Anjos recommends red snapper, porgy, dorade, branzino, black sea bass, and similar Mediterranean fish. These are preferable to fish like halibut or cod because they’re oilier and won’t stick to the grill.
Most fish sold to restaurants and at retail have been previously frozen. Because marine habitat is changing (see Tom Ewing’s story), fish are now caught farther offshore, so fishing boats have to stay out at sea on longer trips. Fish are immediately frozen after catch and kept in the ship’s hold.
Use the tips above to choose a quality whole fish from a dedicated retailer. Have the fishmonger remove the scales and gut the fish; if you scale fish yourself, dos Anjos says, you’ll be finding scales all over your kitchen for weeks.
The photos show dos Anjos gutting the fish. To do this at home, use a flexible boning knife to work along the underside (belly) of the fish, cutting a line from the anal fin to the chin. Use a scaler (the wooden-handled tool shown) or a chef’s knife to remove any remaining scales.
To prepare, cut the fins off and remove the gills with scissors. Rinse the fish inside and out. For grilling, make three diagonal cuts, about a quarter inch deep, on each side to allow heat to penetrate through the skin and cook the fish evenly.
Stuffing & Grilling
First, season the fish with salt inside and out; dos Anjos says most cooks overlook seasoning the inside of the fish. In the cavity formed when the fish was gutted, place 2 or 3 sliced garlic cloves, several sprigs of hardy herb (rosemary, thyme, marjoram, oregano, or a combination), and thin slices of lemon (cut the rounds in half so they fit in the cavity).
Tie the fish with kitchen twine in three places to hold everything inside. Brush the fish on both sides with olive oil. Dos Anjos prefers to oil the fish instead of the grill, because the oil will take on an “off” taste when it hits the hot grates.
To grill outdoors: Prep your charcoal so it’s really hot and the coals are gray and glowing. If using a gas grill, preheat one side to high and the other to medium. Place the fish right over the fire or on the hot side of your gas grill and let it brown for about 3 minutes or a bit longer. Use tongs to grasp the head of the fish and turn it. If the fish sticks when you attempt to turn it, stop! Let it continue cooking until it moves easily (you don’t want to tear the skin). Flip it and brown the other side in similar fashion. Then move the fish to the cooler part of the grill, cover, and cook through.
So when is it done? Dos Anjos: “It’ll be done when it’s done; it’s not like baking a cake where you need the exact time and temperature. The fish will tell you when it’s done. Look for the fish to be opaque inside the slits you made. Slip a metal skewer or cake tester into the thickest part of the flesh for 15 seconds, then touch it to your bottom lip. If the skewer is hot, the fish is done.” Generally, this should be 8–12 minutes per side.
To grill fish indoors in a cast-iron grill pan, as we did in the demonstration shown here, preheat the pan until it’s piping hot (the pan will smoke). Place the oiled fish in the pan and brown as directed above, then flip. Place the pan into the oven preheated to 400° and bake until fish is done as above..
When the fish is nicely browned on the outside and cooked through, transfer it to a cutting board. Snip the twine and pull it off. Remove the stuffing. Use a chef’s knife to slice lengthwise down the middle to open the fish up like a book and expose the spine and rib bones. Remove these, then close the fish back up.
Line a serving platter with more fresh herb sprigs. Place the whole fish on top and add some lemon wedges to the plate. Place the platter at the center of the table with great ceremony and let everyone serve themselves.
You’ll likely encounter some small, slender bones along the back ridgeline of the fish—just know they’re there and pull them out before taking a bite. Spritz the fish liberally with lemon juice. Especially savor the crispy skin—it may be the best part of the dish.
Pour a bright white wine like a Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, or unoaked Chardonnay. Serve some crusty bread, good butter, and a simple vegetable or salad.
Says dos Anjos, “You’ll feel like you’re on a beach on the Mediterranean.” We’re so there.
Bryn’s long career in publishing took a left turn sometime around 2010, when she discovered the joy of food writing. Since then, she’s found professional nirvana as the editor of Edible Ohio Valley, author of The Findlay Market Cookbook, and occasional instructor at The Cooking School at Jungle Jim’s. Find her seasonal recipes at writes4food.com.