I've wanted to try roasting in a salt crust for a while, so when I got back from the beach on Sunday and had a craving for fish I decided to give it a shot. The salty, briney smell of sand and ocean was still all over my clothes, skin and hair when I started cooking; it seemed like the perfect idea.
Because I live in an apartment I don't have the ability to grill, despite a rather generous lawn that my landlord simply won't let me use for a big steel drum with an open flame. Roasting provides a nice alternative, even if it does turn my kitchen into a modest sauna. The great thing about the salt crust, aside from how ridiculously easy it is to do, is that your fish always comes out incredibly moist and flavorful. It does not, as you might think, make your fish come out salty. If you do everything right, you won't even have little flakes of salt on your fish at all; just flaky flesh and yummy roasted whatever-you-put-in-the-stomach.
I didn't follow a recipe for this. All I did was look up several recommended cooking temperatures, times, and methods for making a salt crust. Then I picked what I thought was best and gave it a whirl. It turned out brilliantly. For sides, I used my farmers' market haricots verts for a green and garbanzo bean salad my mom used to make when I was a kid, and roasted an unbelievably sweet ear of farmer's market corn -- herb butter slathered on between kernel and foil before cooking and roasted alongside the fish for 20 minutes -- to great success.
Salt Crust-Roasted Whole Red Snapper
One whole red snapper, gutted, cleaned and scaled
1/2 box (about 1 1/2 pounds) coarse kosher salt
1/3 cup water
several sage leaves
one shallot, diced
herb butter (To make, mince garlic and any fresh herbs you like, and mix them together with soft unsalted butter. Make sure you salt the butter to your taste.)
Make sure you ask your fishmonger to clean, scale and remove the gills from your fish. You can also ask him to remove the eyes if that squicks you out, but you need the fish to be whole and intact. When you get home, give it a rinse and pat it dry and set it aside on your pan. For your pan, just use a cookie sheet and put a piece of parchment paper over it to keep anything from sticking, and to make cleanup much easier.
Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Take a small palm-full of your herb butter and slather it over the skin and inside the fish's body cavity. Dice your shallot fairly fine, and stuff into the body cavity, along with a couple sage leaves. Tear up a couple more sage leaves and stick them to the butter on the fish. To make the salt crust, pour half of a box of coarse kosher salt into a bowl. Add the 1/3 cup water slowly; what you want is for your salt to take on the consistency of wet sand, the kind you find right at the shoreline. When you've reached that consistency (work it well with your fingers), pile it on top of the fish, spreading and matting until you've done to your fish what you used to do with your father on the beach -- bury it in the salt. Make sure your crust is solid (the tail and the top of the head might stick out; that's fine), and then pop your fish into the over for 30 minutes.
When the 30 minutes are up, remove your fish and turn the oven off. Take the back of a wooden spoon and tap -- hard -- around the edge of the crust. Then take the tip of a butter knife and lever it into the crack you've made. The top of your crust should lift off in one piece; handle it gently so it doesn't fall apart. Clear off as much of the crust as you can, and from one entire side of the fish if you can. Using a spatula, simply get under the fish and lift it off the pan. The parchment should let it go freely; in my case, I managed to life one side off completely, then I pulled out the skeleton, then I got the other side, so I had two fillets.
And if you want to make the green and garbanzo bean salad:
Take a giant bunch of green beans and boil for about three minutes. Shock in ice water. Combine with two cans of garbanzo beans. Then douse healthily with Italian dressing. Simply, practically foolproof, and it only gets better the longer it hangs out in the fridge. Not that I've ever been able to keep it around for long!
All that's left to do is eat. Watch out for little bones, as there are bound to be a few, but I only got four, and only from one side. The snapper was so flaky and tender, getting the skeleton out intact was a breeze. The corn was amazingly sweet and juicy -- now is the time to be raiding your local farmer's market for as many ears as you can get your hands on. And the beans were cool, crisp and vinegary. It's just the perfect meal for the summer, especially when your heart -- and mind -- is still at the beach.