Please welcome Hank Shaw as he takes us through the steps of grilling a whole fish, using sustainably farmed branzino. ~Elise
Branzino. Sounds kinda like a the name of a 1940s prizefighter. If it’s ringing a bell, that’s because this fish is popping up in American supermarkets for the first time. Also known as European seabass, the fish – now farmed throughout the Mediterranean – has been a prized item on European menus since the days of ancient Rome. The farmed variety began appearing on American restaurant menus a little less than a decade ago, when the European farming operations ramped up production.
Branzino, which is the fish’s name in Northern Italy, generally run about 1 pound each and are almost always sold whole and gutted. This is a good thing, as it is far easier to discern whether a fish is fresh when it still has its eyes and gills: You’re looking for bright, healthy eyes and bright red gills. Sunken, red eyes and brownish gills means the fish has gone off. We found ours at Whole Foods quite by accident – I saw the whole fish in the case and was immediately seduced by the sight of a whole fish, with gleaming clear eyes. I had to have it.
When I asked the price, I was even happier. It was only $9.99 a pound, which is pretty cheap for Whole Foods. The relatively low price is because the fish is farmed. Should you ever see a wild branzino on sale in the United States, it’ll set you back at least $30 a pound – and I’ve only seen one in a market once, and that was at the Fulton Fish Market in New York City.
Don’t have access to branzino? No problem. Midwesterners actually have the perfect alternative in the walleye. The flavor, texture and bone structure are nearly identical. Other great alternatives would be Pacific rock cod, Atlantic black seabass, a large croaker or a small red drum or striped bass. Basically you want a whole fish (scaled and gutted, of course) that is just about the size of a platter.
Purists eat their branzino solely with salt and lemon. We’ve created a rosemary vinaigrette that goes great with the fish. Simply drizzle it over right when you serve.
If branzino is not available, try this with walleye, Pacific rock cod, or a large Atlantic black seabass.
- 2 Tbsp minced onion
- 1 teaspoon mustard
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 Tbsp white wine vinegar
- 1 large garlic clove, chopped
- 1 heaping tablespoon of minced fresh rosemary
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 whole branzino
- Olive oil
- Salt, preferably sea salt
1 Make the rosemary vinaigrette. Put the minced onion, mustard, salt, vinegar, garlic and rosemary into a blender and purée it for about 30 seconds. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides of the blender and puree it again for 10-20 seconds. Scrape the sides down again. Turn the blender on low and take the removable cap off the lid. Hold you hand over the hole, as it might spit a little. Pour the olive oil in slowly and put the cap back on. Turn the blender off and scrape the sides down one more time. Turn the blender back on low, then high for 60 seconds.
Incidentally, this vinaigrette would be great with potatoes, chicken or turkey – or just over a tossed salad.
2 Rinse the fish under cold water. Now make sure its gills and scales are all removed; your fishmonger is not always so diligent about this task, and no one wants a scale on his plate. Gills can impart a bitter taste to the fish, so they need to go, too.
3 Use a very sharp knife and make several slashes on the sides of the fish, maybe every inch or so. Make the cuts at an angle to the side of the fish, and slice down until you feel the spine. Do not sever the spine, however. These cuts will help the fish cook faster. Rub olive oil all over the fish and set it aside.
4 Prepare your grill for high, direct heat. Scrape down the grates well and close the lid. Salt the fish well. Now grab a paper towel, a set of tongs, and some cheap vegetable oil. Bring all of this out to the grill. Fold the paper towel over several times, moisten it with the vegetable oil, and hold it with tongs to wipe down the grill grates.
5 Lay the fish down on the grill and close the lid. Let this cook for 5 minutes without touching it.
6 Open the lid and, using tongs, gently see if you can lift the fish off the grates cleanly. Don’t actually do this, but check for sticky spots. If you have some, get a metal spatula. Use the spatula to dislodge the fish from the sticky spots.
Using tongs in one hand, and the spatula in another, gently flip the fish over. If it sticks, no biggie. It happens sometimes.
7 Once the fish has been flipped, let it cook another 3-5 minutes. Again, test for sticky spots with the tongs and spatula. Dislodge them gently and gently lift the fish onto a plate. If the fish is too long or seems like it might break in half, use two metal spatulas instead of the tongs-and-spatula set-up.
Drizzle the vinaigrette over the fish and serve at once. Goes well with crusty bread and a glass of pilsner beer or white wine.