THE WHOLE SHEBANG Grilled whole black sea bass, stuffed with butter, herbs, and lemon.
Skinless, boneless cuts of fish are convenient — you don't have to clean them yourself — but getting rid of those "extras" takes away a lot of flavor, and a lot of the nutrition, too. Good news! It's easy to grill whole fish, and they make a great centerpiece for summer cookouts.
Pick one out at a place with a good selection, like Harbor Fish Market on Custom House Wharf, just off Commercial Street, where there are several options for smaller whole fish, which are the right size for a quick meal for two. Dan Kraus is the man when it comes to Harbor Fish's whole selections.
"Many Asian cultures really have it figured out," he says. "Customers will come in and, aside from buying whole fish, will buy the skins and bones that most people discard, using it for stocks and sauces. They know that this is where the Omega 3 fatty acids are, as well as a rich flavor."
Keeping the skin on the fish as it cooks is the best way to keep in the flavor and moisture, as the oils in the skin seal and self-baste the fish as it cooks — it's an ingenious built-in cooking plan. Kraus reminded me of the shopping basics for fresh fish of any type: look for clean (not slimy) skin, clear eyes, a fresh sea smell, and a firm (almost rigid) fish that doesn't look limp.
The tautog, also called blackfish, often caught in Rhode Island and other waters farther south, looked terrific, but were a little too big for my small dinner. The branzino, a Mediterranean fish, was gorgeous and looked to be the right size at one-and-a-half to two pounds each, but were a tad too pricey for this trip. We settled on the branzino's American cousin, the black sea bass. It bore a similar weight to the branzino, and at $6.99 a pound, its domesticity brought it within budget.
Kraus also offered to do a little prep of my two-pound fish before I took it home. Within moments, he had removed the scales, snipped the fins and tail, and sliced open the belly to remove some of the guts, creating an ideal cavity for stuffing. Keep in mind that, with a little practice, you can do these things very easily at home. I was able to learn a few tips just by watching the professional at work.
Once home, into the cavity went a few bits of fresh herbs and a little butter, as much for its salt as anything. A few slices of lemon, with the rind facing out, make a good plug for the opening; if you're careful, you may not need to tie it shut with kitchen twine, but do so if you wish.
That makes the fish into a self-basting, self-steaming cooking parcel that needs only 10 minutes on a hot grill, with a little oil to keep the skin from sticking. The sea bass was served over greens, with some grilled zucchini as accompaniment, making a light and easy warm-weather dinner.
Todd Richard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HARBOR FISH MARKET | 9 Custom House Wharf, Portland | Mon-Sat 8:30 am-5:30 pm | 207.775.0251 | www.harborfish.com