My epiphany came courtesy of a foodie friend named Quang, who loves to come over and cook for my parents. It's a lovely friendship. Quang loves cooking. My folks love eating. My dad loves fishing. Quang loves cooking fish. He tries to love fishing, but it's a love-hate thing, since he gets seasick as soon as he steps on a dock. But he sure knows what to do with the fish once we bring our fresh catch home.
Quang showed me a couple of variations on the whole baked fish, a dramatic presentation that tends to wow certain types of friends and frighten others. (Something about that scary eyeball.) I was surprised by how basic it is to learn, and how tender and moist the fish stays when sealed inside the skin. Quang cleaned the fish, removing the organs but leaving the gills, scales, and other no-eats intact. (Thankfully, whole fish from the fishmonger is already prepped.) Then he simply popped it in the oven and baked it at 375 degrees until the scales curled and the skin peeled right off. It was like opening a present.
He then showed me a few variations on what to do next. All were delicious. (Read on for details and recipes...)
1. With butter and scallions. For the most simple
treatment, Quang melted butter on the stove top and tossed in some
scallions just long enough for them to wilt. He drizzled this lightly
over the fish, a simple accent that didn't draw too much attention from
the flavor of the fish itself.
2. In lettuce wraps, with Tamarind dipping sauce. Quang flaked the fish into slices of red leaf lettuce, then added fresh mint leaves, Thai basil, and some Chinese herbs that he grows in his garden. He served the wraps with a sauce he made from boiled and strained Tamarind pods, fish sauce, red chili paste, and sliced fresh Thai chili peppers. The mint added a nice cooling contrast to the heat of the sauce. This was perhaps my favorite, although it was a bit messy to handle.
3. In spring rolls. These were similar to the lettuce wraps, but added rice stick noodles to the fish and herbs, wrapped neatly in a translucent spring roll wrapper. The taste was a little milder, and the noodles more filling, but the flavor of the spicy dipping sauce gained prominence. It was a lovely presentation -- perfect for an appetizer (or a lite meal). I love the tactile sensation of the spring roll paper. This really satisfied my craving for cold noodles (rice stick and bean thread in particular) ever since the weather warmed up.
If you want to give this approach a try, start with fresh whole fish (tastes even better when you catch it yourself!) and try these recipes:
Whole Trout with Tarragon Aioli, a 5-star Cooking Light recipe
Whole Snapper with Fennel and Lemon, by Cooking Light
Nime Chow (Whole Spring Rolls), by Cooking Light (you can substitute the whole fish meat for the shrimp in this tasty recipe)