Pesce al Sale – Whole Fish Baked in Sea Salt

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I often prepare a whole fish in sea salt when we entertain friends. This is a dish that is surprisingly easy to prepare despite its dramatic presentation. The entire fish is encased in sea salt, baked in the oven and presented whole at the table. Its hardened crust of sea salt and egg white is cracked open to reveal a succulent, steaming and aromatic fish.  Have your fishmonger clean and descale the fish when you purchase it. The fish can be baked simply as is, or stuffed with a combination of lemon slices, garlic, and fennel fronds. Serve the fillets drizzled with your best extra-virgin olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon. It’s also a good time to break out the special sea salt flakes or fleur de sel that you may be saving for a special occasion.

Pesce al Sale filets

Whole Fish Baked in Sea Salt – Pesce al Sale

Serves 6

One whole fish, 5 to 6 pounds, such as snapper, rock cod, or sea bass, cleaned, gutted, and scaled
1 lemon, sliced
2 to 3 fennel fronds, cut into 3-inch pieces
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 pounds coarse sea salt
2 large egg whites

Extra-virgin olive oil
Lemon wedges
Sea salt flakes
Parsley Gremolata (see below)

1. Preheat the oven to 450°F (225°C)
2. Pat the fish dry with a paper towel. Place the lemon slices, fennel, and garlic in the cavity of the fish, without over-stuffing.
3. Combine the salt and egg whites in a bowl and mix well to moisten the salt. Spread 1/3 of the salt mixture on the bottom of a large baking dish. Lay the fish on top. Pour the remaining salt over the fish, covering completely. (The tail can remain exposed if needed.)
4. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until an instant read thermometer reads 135°F. (If the fish is stuffed with lemon and fennel, it may require additional cooking time, approximately 10 minutes.)
5. Remove the fish from the oven and crack the crust open with a small hammer or knife. Remove and discard the crust. Lift away the skin and fillet the fish on one side, then flip the fish and repeat on the other side.
6. Arrange the fillets on warm serving plates. Drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Sprinkle with sea salt flakes and garnish with the parsley gremolata. Serve immediately.

Parsley Gremolata:
Combine 1/2 cup finely chopped Italian parsley, 1 minced garlic clove, and the finely grated zest of one untreated lemon in a bowl.  Season to taste with a pinch of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

*This recipe was chosen as the winner in a competition hosted by Food52 and will be published in their upcoming cookbook.  You can find this recipe and many other delicious recipes on their site, and have a chance to cast your votes for favorite recipes.

Whole Fish Baked in Sea Salt


Molo 13

Perhaps it’s the heat or perhaps I have the itch to travel right now. I am thinking of Italy. There are plenty of things to think about in Italy, but I am specifically thinking of a restaurant I dined at in Milan a number of years ago called Molo 13. This restaurant is one of those restaurants where if you are a tourist, if you do not have a local resident show it to you, you would never know it existed. This is the best kind of restaurant to eat in when traveling.

In my post Border Crossings, I mention a road trip to Milan, when I took with my friend, Deb, when I lived near Geneva. Aside from having a gun drawn on us by a particularly ruffled border guard at the French/Italian frontier, this was a very positive experience. As we drove on to Milan through the mountains of Aosta and Piemonte, we anticipated our arrival in the city, shopping along the Monte Napoleone, seeing the Duomo, and, of course, eating. In fact, we had a dinner scheduled for later that evening. The plan was that after checking into our hotel, we would drive to Malpensa airport where we would pick up my husband and his Italian colleague, Eugenio. They were returning from a business meeting in Rome, and Eugenio would take us to dinner at one of his favorite restaurants in Milan.

So arrived and checked in, Deb and I headed out, informed by the hotel’s concierge that signs to the airport would be clearly marked. We easily found the ring road that encircles Milan, a major motorway for commuters, that would take us to the airport some 35 km. away. As rush hour was peaking we were caught up in the whirlwind of the zooming traffic. Drivers sped past us, criss-crossing lanes from left to right and back again, taking turns tailgating each other. Crazy, dangerous, and wild were the operating adjectives at hand – it was automotive-chaos-theory at 200 km/hour. Appropriately, it was at this time that the headlights on my spiffy, sporty, somewhat older BMW failed. (There must be a football metaphor in there somewhere… Italian Exuberance:1  vs. German Reticence:0?)

In a split second we took stock of our situation: No map, no improved language skills since our brief exposure to Italian epithets at the border crossing, and now no functioning headlights, so even if we could read the road signs, we could hardly see them. At this moment, in most civilized societies this would be enough of a motive to just get off the road. But, this being Italy (very civilized, by the way, but in its own special way) there is a different principle applied to driving: it’s viewed as a sport; it’s adrenaline merging with testosterone; it’s an accumulation of many espressos. No lights? No problem!  Besides, now that we were caught up in the swirling vortex of the ring road, all physics of an easy, gentle trajectory towards a spontaneous exit went out the window. Either you plan your exit at least 5 km. in advance and preferably never leave the exit lane (very un-Italian.) Or you simply exit NOW! no matter what is in your way; things will just sort themselves out (very Italian.)

Well, we made it. (I am a schooled Boston driver, after all.) I have a memory of hurtling in the dark on the motorway and swerving sharply on 2 wheels when we saw the sign at the very last moment to the airport, cutting off several cars in our path. As I swerved again to avoid side-swiping an Alfa Romeo, I could have sworn I caught the approving nod of its Italian driver as I accelerated past him with no headlights. I was driving like a local.

So, imagine our relief when we finally arrived at our restaurant later that evening. The relief was replaced by delight as we entered Molo 13 and were overcome by the warm, lively, fully booked restaurant filled with Italians enjoying seafood specialties inspired by the Sardinian coast. We let Eugenio do the ordering and were treated to a multi-coursed feast beginning with assorted antipasti, followed by a sublime seafood risotto, and a main course of baked sea bass encrusted in sea salt. For the cheese course an enormous wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano was passed around the table, and we scooped out large chunks of the cheese with a spoon. (I still have that in mind as a cheese course for a very large dinner party.) The food was Italian at its best – uncomplicated and clean, showcasing the freshness of ingredients in their simplicity of use.

Since then, I have replicated the baked fish in sea salt recipe at home. It is a remarkably easy recipe and a beautiful way to present a whole fish. Break away the salt at the table for added effect. The fish will be succulent and flavorful, the only garnish needed is a drizzle of olive oil and fresh lemon juice.

Whole Fish Baked in Sea Salt – Pesce al Sale

Serves 4

One whole fish, about 2 lbs., such as snapper or sea bass, cleaned, scaled
Lemon slices March 2008 Salt Fish 005
1 egg white
2 pounds coarse sea salt

Extra-virgin olive oil
Lemon wedges

Preheat oven to 400 F.
Place lemon slices in cavity of the fish.
Combine egg white and sea salt in a bowl. Mix well to moisten salt.
Spread 1/3 salt mixture on bottom of an oven-proof baking dish. Lay fish on top. Pour remaining salt over fish, covering completely. If needed, tail can remain exposed.
Bake in oven 30 minutes.
Crack crust open with a small hammer or knife.  Remove and discard crust.
Fillet the fish. Serve drizzled with olive oil and lemon.