Author Notes: "I feel sorry for people who brag about ‘living in the moment’; they’re like people who come into the cinema after the film has started or people who drink Diet coke – they’re missing out on the best part. I think time is like the dial on a radio. Most people like to settle on a station with a clear signal and no interference. But that doesn’t mean you can’t listen to two or even three stations at the same time; it doesn’t mean synchrony is impossible."
from "Kamchatka" by Marcelo Figueras
(Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne; forthcoming from Atlantic Books) —elsbeth
Serves: depends on the size and number of your fish
At least 1 whole fish, such as snapper, sea bass or branzino (cleaned)
box kosher salt or sea salt
bay leaves, at least, the fresher the better, or a bunch of fresh thyme, or both
several oranges and lemons for zesting
- Preheat your oven to 450 degrees.
- Choose a dish that will accommodate your fish and will allow it to be covered with salt. Even a baking pan with a shallow lip will do, since the seasoned salt will have the consistency of moist sand, and will keep its shape if mounded around the fish.
- To prepare the salt, zest as many lemons and oranges as you have on hand into a large bowl with the egg whites. Whisk until the whites froth a bit, and then stir in the salt. Mix in the bay leaves--as many as you can spare, really, reserving a few to put inside the cavity of the fish--so that they bruise a bit and begin to infuse the salt. You may add other herbs such as thyme, but this dish is great with just the combination of bay and citrus.
- It's incredible how cooking can dislodge a memory from the mental archive. Sometimes it's a repetitive motion that's to blame. Zesting, that simple motion of scraping the outermost layer of skin from a citrus fruit with a sharp tool to release the oils, always connects me to the days when I used to work in a bakery. I let myself wander through memories of lemon shortbread and the woman who taught me to make marmelade, as I turn the fruit, gleaning the flavor from its every surface.
- The first time I made fish baked in a salt crust, Jon and I were hosting a dinner party. We'd just moved back to the East coast and wanted to reconnect with friends. I recall us buying the fish--six at least--in Chinatown the night before. It was already dark, but the stalls were well-lit, it seemed, because the fish were glowing!
- I think afterwards we went to a bar for a drink, and convinced the bartender to keep our fish in his fridge!
- Rouse yourself from musings, and lay about an inch of salt on the dish where the fish is to be placed. Did I mention, it doesn't matter if the fish is scaled or not? The scales and skin will stick to the salt when the meat is lifted out. Just make sure the fish's cavity is clean and fill with thyme and/or bay leaves. Then place the fish on the layer of salt, and mound the rest of the salt around to completely cover it.
- Roast for 25-30 minutes. (Err on the low side if you fish is less than 1 lb, on the high side if it's more than 2.)
- The only trick to this dish, if there is one, is the serving. It should be served at the table, the better to impress your loved one(s) when you crack the aromatic crust of salt and chisel it away to reveal the fish within. The first time I had this dish, in Venice, while on a trip to do interviews for a film which was never made, it had been ordered for me in a restaurant and took me completely by surprise. Luckily, my boyfriend Jon is as patient as that waiter. When he finds the tender fish, he lifts off the skin and cuts the fillet with a serving spoon into spoon-sized sections he can easily scoop off the skeleton onto the waiting plates.
- Don't forget to keep another dish nearby to whisk the fish skeletons into, so you can reach the bottom-fillet.
- Garnish with a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil.