Recipe: Whole baked fish stuffed with shellfish, accompanied by saffron roasted potatoes, tomatoes and peppers.
Growing up, I was always scared of eating whole fish. If you read my blog on cooking a Bouillabaisse for the first time, you’d know that seafood wasn’t a big part of my life as a child.
When I was finally confronted with a whole, glistening, gelatinous cooked fish (when I was about 18), I couldn’t eat it. I think it was the eyes. They were always staring at me, even if I shifted to a different position in the room, much to the annoyance of my mum.
And cooking it seemed way too hard. TV shows scared me off because they always (without fail) stressed how easy it was to overcook fish. An undercooked fish was even worse – like a death penalty. I was brainwashed that there was the tiniest window of opportunity to get fish right. On top of that, Nuneaton, a small town in the Midlands where I was brought up (you won’t know it, unless you went past it on the train going from London to up ‘Narth’), was not really a bastion of seafood. Ask for a scallop in Nuneaton and you’d get battered potato on a bed of soggy chips. So I didn’t bother while I lived in England.
But during a longish stint in Hong Kong, it was impossible to avoid whole fish. Cooking and eating whole fish is very important to the Chinese. Being able to cook it to perfection meant you progressed well in society.
In some places in China, they deep-fry the fish while its heart is still beating. The skill of the chef is to cook the fish so that the flesh is succulent, yet bring it to the table with its heart still beating. Not my idea of a decent meal, but you gotta hand it to the Chinese. There’s something quite dramatic, if not macabre, about bringing food to the table that fresh.
In South China, steaming a whole fish is a pressure test for a woman about to get married. Their future mother-in-law uses it as a litmus test to assess whether the potential lady could look after their son after leaving home. Do it well and they get their blessing. It’s a high stake whole-fish cook-off.
So after eight years in the former British Colony, I chose to embrace the whole fish. When I say embrace, I have eaten it many times. But I have cooked it far less. I have steamed it a couple of times Asian style (with scallions, ginger, chilli, lime and soy sauce). I have roasted it (once). And that’s about it.
So where is this fishy tail heading I hear you ask? Well, when I moved to Australia, I went through an Italian phase. My boss is an avid foodie and my guiding light when it comes to recommendations for cooking books. I think she is addicted to them, but that’s another story.
I only had one Italian cookbook at the time and it wasn’t very good. I asked my boss for a definitive Italian cookbook. She mentioned a cook by the name of Marcella Hazan. I immediately bought a book, despite not having heard of her before (I’m a heathen by the way, she’s a guru of home cooked Italian food).
The book is dense. It has no photographs and the recipes can be lengthy even with a few ingredients. I like photos and I like large writing in cookbooks. So for a while I didn’t cook anything from it. But there was one recipe that stuck out. Whole baked fish stuffed with mussels, clams and prawns. A succulent fish with yummy sea-tasting stuffing.
I have been looking at it for a while, but having to bone a whole fish put me off. That would be way too fiddly.
Recently, though, I was buoyed by a recent trip to my local fishmonger. After buying a few things, I asked on the off chance whether they debone whole fish. Yes they do. The recipe was now within my reach. And a new years day dinner would be a perfect time to cook it.
The recipe doesn’t recommend side dishes, so I chose saffron roasted potatoes with tomatoes, anchovies and red peppers. This is a Rick Stein recipe (of course) and he partners it with whole baked sea bass, so I figured it would work.
I told my kids that I would be cooking a whole fish. This was closely followed by a massive and very enthusiastic “WOW”, not really understanding what this meant. It was going to be a big risk. But, as I saw it, I didn’t have a whole fish until I was 18 and I didn’t like it then, but now I love it. You have to start somewhere. I showed my kids the fish (and told them I caught it that day, so now my six year old is keen as mustard to go fishing. She’s going to be severely disappointed) and they had a feel of the fins and the skin. As long as they taste it, I would be happy I thought.
I started with the potatoes. I sliced them, partially cooked them and laid them carefully in the bottom of the roasting dish. I added infused saffron water and chicken stock. I scattered sliced tomatoes, chopped anchovies and garlic over the top and framed the potatoes with red peppers. I added olive oil and then put it in a moderate oven for 30 minutes.
I started on the fish. The recipe calls for sea bass, between 1.8kg to 2.5kg for six people. I went for snapper and it weighed about 1.5kg. You don’t really have a whole lot of choice when it comes to weight, so you have to make it work. Based on the cooking times in the recipe, I thought about 35 minutes should do it.
I stuffed it with cooked mussels, clams and prawns (I cooked the muscles and clams beforehand without any liquid in a covered pot and saved the natural broth). I added onions, parsley, salt, pepper, and olive oil. I used the broth from the cooked mussels to dribble over the skin of the fish before tightly wrapping the fish in foil (double thickness). I added the fish to the oven after the potatoes had finished the 30 minutes. I set the timer for another 35 minutes. I waited with anticipation.
You can’t take the fish out of the foil and present it because it has no bones. It will simply collapse. So I put the foil-wrapped fish on the serving dish next to the potatoes. I cut open the foil with scissors and the smell of the sea filled the kitchen.
Because I had guessed the cooking time I was very nervous that I had either over or undercooked the fish. I sliced one side of the fish with a spoon. Relieved, the fish was delicate, moist and succulent. South Chinese mother-in-laws would love me! The kids though were a little bit overwhelmed about eating it. My eldest did her best, but looked liked she had chewed on a wasp. My youngest had a melt down, kicking and screaming like she’d been dragged away to jail for a life sentence. My wife complained there weren’t enough potatoes and ate them like she hadn’t eaten in a week. I was having an orgasm at the table. I was happy.
The stuffed fish recipe by Marcella Hazan
Ask your fishmonger to debone and butterfly the fish for stuffing, keeping the head and tail attached. If wild bass is not available, use any meaty, white-fleshed fish such as snapper.
6 medium shrimp, shells and veins removed
2 cloves garlic, lightly smashed
1 small onion, very thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Juice of 1 lemon
8 tablespoons of olive oil
1 tablespoon of breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 whole bass (about 1.8kg) or snapper
1. Set a rack in the upper third of the oven. Preheat it to 475 degrees (240 degrees Celsius). Soak the clams and mussels for 5 minutes in a large bowl of cold water. Scrub the shells using a stiff brush. Drain. Discard any shellfish that don’t shut when tapped. Pull away fibres from the mussels.
2. Put the clams, mussels and wine in a large pot, cover and set over high heat. Shake the pan occasionally and remove the shellfish as soon as their shells open. Shell the clams and mussels and place their meat in a bowl. Strain the juices through a paper-towel-lined fine sieve and into the bowl of shellfish. Let them soak for 20 minutes.
3. Transfer the shellfish to a large bowl. Set the juices aside. Pat the shrimp dry, chop them into bite-size pieces and add to the bowl of shellfish along with the garlic, onion, parsley, lemon juice, olive oil and breadcrumbs. Season all over with salt and pepper and toss gently.
4. Line a baking sheet with 2 layers of foil, extending double the length of the pan. Pour some of the shellfish juices on the bottom of the pan and place the fish in the centre. Season the inside of the fish with salt and pepper. Stuff it with the shellfish mixture. Moisten the skin side of the fish with some of the remaining shellfish juices. Fold the foil over the fish, crimping the edges to tightly seal it. In the upper third of the oven, roast the fish for about 40 to 45 minutes. Let rest for 10 minutes. Cut open the pouch. Remove the fins.
Rick Stein’s saffron roasted potatoes and tomatoes
Large pinch of saffron strands
2 lb (900 g) potatoes, peeled and cut into l/2-inch (l-cm) slices
4 plum tomatoes, skinned and cut lengthwise into quarters
2 oz (50 g) anchovy fillets in oil, drained
2/3 cup (150 ml) chicken stock
4 red bell peppers, each one seeded and cut into 8 chunks
8 garlic cloves, each sliced into 3 lengthwise
8 small sprigs of oregano
1/3 cup (85 ml) olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Place the saffron in a tea cup, pour in 2 tablespoons of hot water, and let soak.
2. Put the potatoes in a pan of boiling salted water and parboil for 7 minutes. Drain well, then arrange them in a narrow strip on the bottom of a baking dish large enough to hold the sea bass either lengthwise or diagonally.
3. Scatter the tomatoes and anchovy fillets over the potatoes, then pour the saffron water and stock on top. Scatter the pieces of red pepper down either side of the potatoes and sprinkle with the garlic, oregano sprigs, and olive oil. Season everything well with salt and pepper. Bake for 30 minutes. Add fish and cook for another 35 minutes.