Disclaimer: This dish may have been what initiated my fascination with Italian cooking!
Why essential? For starters, this dish is so simple and delicious that it should be an essential fall back recipe in everyone’s repertoire. Secondly, a pillar of the Italian and especially Pugliese kitchen is about finding the essence of few, quality, fresh ingredients, and is demonstrated particularly well in this dish.
All of these ingredients, fish and salt, can be easily found in coastal areas the world over, which makes this dish an especially accessible way to enjoy an authentic Italian dining experience. Isn’t that among the most rewarding aspects of cultural exchange, to be able to share it with others no matter how distant one is from its origin?
One whole fish, FRESH
Enough coarse sea-salt to cover the fish
- Choose a very fresh, local, whole fish.
- Remove the guts and clean the fish well (leave the skin, bones and head on - you'll get rid of them later!)
- Completely cover the fish with coarse sea-salt so that you can no longer see the fish underneath, and bake it in the oven at 350˚ F. Using your nose to judge baking time, remove the fish from the oven just as the aroma has begun to fill the kitchen!
- Brush away the salt. Carefully remove the bones and skin. Sprinkle with fresh lemon juice, if desired.
*Note: baking time will vary based on the size of the fish.
I had been an au-pair for just a bit when Giulia, the mother of the family that I lived with, whipped out a stunning white porcelain deep-dish shaped like a fish (chic, of course…but also adorable), plopped a whole fish inside, covered it with salt, and put it in the oven. No timer had been set and so I thought there must be something wrong! and pestered Giulia, “what’s the plan here?” She told me, in fewer words than step 3 of the recipe above, what the plan was.
…So I just lingered, creepily, around the kitchen.
Do I smell the fish yet?
12 seconds later. What about now?
I’m not confident my nose has the proper training for this…
About 45 minutes later I sat down, took a bite, and never looked back. Overwhelmed by thoughts and emotions, one principle feeling was guilt; after all, I was just coming to the realization that I had spent all my life ignoring who fish apparently is! What a superior ass, I am...Fish with mayonnaise, fish with capers, fish with butter, fish with oh so many disguises! I hadn’t even tried to get to know it, but alas there it was, bare and beautiful right before my eyes. "I'm sorry fish," I thought, "I'll never ignore your true self again."
And I loved it for who it really was: just an animal, best cooked in salt.