Avec tête (aka Whole Fish Branzino)

When I was in college, I lived in the country side of France for a fall trimester.  I lived with a host family who made delicious home cooked meals.  Upon arrival, my host mother asked me if I had any food preferences and I admitted that other than veal, there was no food I wouldn’t eat.

One night I was quite surprised to see a fish on my dinner plate. Mostly because while I looked at it, it looked right back at me. It had a mouth, tail, skin, and … eyes.  A whole fish!  Apparently my body language said it all. OMG. There’s a whole dead fish on my plate.  “Sans tête, Émilie?”  “Eh… oui, sans tête, s’il vous plaît.”   (No head, Emily?  Um… yes, no head please.”  For the rest of my stay, my host family loved to remind me of that embarrassing night.  “Émilie, sans tête!  Émilie, sans tête!”

A few years later while on the coast of Portugal, and at a completely unassuming deck top restaurant, I was treated with the most amazing fish that I had ever had.  It was completely encrusted in salt and cooked whole on an open fire. This white fish (I am guessing Branzino or another white bass) was so fresh and simple, tender and fragrant.  It literally melted in my mouth.

About a year ago, I discovered whole white fish at Whole Foods. They were raw and filled with herbs and seasonings.  I’m not going to lie- they looked intimidating to prepare.  I thought to myself: What do I do with this? What do I cook this fish on? For how long? How do I eat this thing? It had a tête!

It felt like a challenge and I love food challenges.  On my next trip to Whole Foods I bought two.  I ended up wrapping the fish in tin foil and baking them for about 25-30 minutes.  Once cooked, they were absolutely delicious.  (Not south of Portugal delicious, but they were unquestionably heavenly.)

After making these a few times I decided to get more daring.  I bought the unseasoned whole fish.  Thankfully before I left the market the gentleman at the fish counter gutted the fish.  I didn’t realize I needed to request this, and perhaps he could just tell that I needed that (THANKFULLY).  (Lets be honest, I’m daring but not THAT daring.)  At home, I rubbed the fish with oil, salt, pepper, fresh garlic, and stuffed with basil and parsley.  I made the mistake of not marinating it overnight.  It was still good but it needed more time.

Whole Fish Branzino

This past week I DID remember to marinate the fish overnight.  Rubbed with olive oil, salt, pepper, and crushed garlic, I added fresh squeezed lemon, and garden grown thyme, rosemary and parsley.  I wrapped the fish individually in tin foil for over 24 hours before baking them still wrapped at 350 degrees, resting on a pan for 25-30 minutes.  Once again, Branzino is so fresh and light, it picks up hints of flavor of the marinade.  It’s SO light and fresh.  I went great with quinoa, roasted cauliflower, and a spicy curry chickpea and spinach dish.

Next time? I will make sure to unwrap the tin foil and let the fish cook uncovered for the last 5 minutes to give the outer skin more texture.  I will add marinated olives to give it extra flavor.  I will also make a tomato and capers ragout to place the cooked fish on.

As for deboning the fish?  To be honest I haven’t really had success at this, but friends have sent me links on how to do it.  My next challenge for sure.

Tempted to try whole fish? Go for it. You will be glad you did.

Happy cooking,