The Fish That Almost Broke Me: Oven Roasted Branzino

Last weekend I went grocery shopping, at my usual, let’s say, charismatic market, filled with angry moms who are notorious for getting into arguments in front of the egg display, and older bachelors, who’s carts are filled with potato crisps and Swanson meals, that I nearly consider inviting them over for dinner every time I am behind them in line.  (Yes, I look at other people’s carts, don’t deny that you do too.)

Why do I go back every week, despite the traumatic experience that makes me want to psych myself up in the parking lot before grabbing a rickety (sometimes sticky, ugh) cart, armed with earbuds in, and a shopping list in hand?  Because the produce selection is incredible, and the freshest available.

And, it’s cheap.

I don’t think there’s anyone who works in academia that will argue against shopping at an affordable market, because let’s face it, our compensation comes in the form of publishable works, not what gets automatically deposited into our account every week.

Anyway, that morning I had thankfully made it by the dangerous egg display without incident.  In fact, I was surprised not to see the usual congestion at the front of the market; a bottle neck of people checking eggs to see if they had cracked in their crates, verifying what day it was on their cell phones and then comparing what the expiration date of the yogurt was, as well as the older ladies with luggage bags on wheels (yes) that habitually leave them in the middle of the aisle, only to give you a good whack to the boniest part of your ankle as they try to plow through the congestion that they deemed your fault.  But at 8:30 a.m., on a Saturday no less, the aisle was clear; a welcoming pathway leading up to the fish counter.

As I glanced at the various filets, I wondered if we should have poached salmon for the hundredth time, or if I should be courageous and try something like monkfish; an ingredient I’ve only seen Morimoto hack up and conquer like an Iron Chef is expected to.

I couldn’t face it.

What I did come across was a whole branzino, sitting upright on its belly, wrapped up and its eye was so bright, that I just knew it had to have been packaged that morning.  Also surprised at how inexpensive it was, I snatched up two.

Well, I was definitely in for a surprise when I unwrapped it on my cutting board that evening.

What’s that you say?  You can’t see anything wrong with it?

Naturally there wouldn’t be anything wrong, but in my case, I was horrified to see it wasn’t gutted or scaled.  That happy little fish sitting up on its belly tricked me.  That, and a cleverly placed price sticker.

After getting many many scales in my hair and even eyebrows (ok, maybe one or two, but that was enough), I finally cleaned the branzino and was able to stuff the cavity and throw it in the oven.  Sure, Eric Ripert probably would have be horrified about what I “wasted,” and that it did look like a bear tore into it, but I was happy with myself.

No matter how bad it looked.

I’ve butchered whole chickens for dinner (or storage in the freezer), but never a fish, and now I could add that to my list, no matter how sloppy the outcome.

And you can always cover up the ragged bits that you’re embarrased about with lemons.

Serves Two

Ingredients

2 whole branzino (cleaned and scaled), about a pound each

4 lemons, two sliced into rounds, the other two in half for juicing

Two tablespoons of capers (I love capers, if you’re weary of using so many, start with a teaspoon per fish)

Four tablespoons of olive oil

A couple pinches of coarse sea salt

Equipment

A sharp knife

One sheet of aluminum foil (for easy clean up to roast your fish in)

One cookie sheet (to easily take the fish in and out of the oven)

This is so easy I almost feel guilty about posting it.  But you know what?  The story itself was quite hard to type up, as WordPress crashed halfway through without saving, so I won’t feel that guilty about it.

Adjust the baking rack to the middle position of the oven and preheat it to 450F.  While it’s warming, tear a sheet of aluminum foil off that will be large enough to hold your branzino for roasting on top of your cookie sheet.  If you’re paranoid about leakage, you can always tear off two sheets, using one to cover the cookie sheet and the other to hold the fish.  Place the fish on the (if you’re using two sheets, the upper sheet of) aluminum foil, then tent up the ends, so that it looks like the bottom half of an open gift box (see photo above).  Season the fish on top as well as the inside with coarse sea salt.  Add a tablespoon of capers to the inside.  Place as many lemon slices that will fit inside the cavity as well.  Pour olive oil over the fish, so that it runs off the body and makes a lovely pool for it to cook in the aluminum foil.  Do the same with the lemon juice.  Repeat with the other fish, in another “aluminum foil package.”

Once the oven has reached 450F, throw the fish in.  Bake for about fifteen minutes.  A good way to test to see if it’s done is to take a fork, and pull a bit of the flesh away from the backbone.  It should look opaque, and flaky.

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