In this recipe, Chef Andy Ricker teaches you how to broil whole snapper in a salt crust that helps the lemongrass-scented fish stay tender and moist as it cooks. Serve intact alongside a vibrant, herbaceous dipping sauce for a meal that's as dramatic as it is delicious!
Use a pestle to whack the thick end of the lemongrass several times to bruise it, which releases some of its oils. Cut off the bottom ½ inch and enough of the top so that the stalk is a few inches shorter than the length of the fish. Place fish on a rimmed baking sheet. Insert the stalk through the fish’s belly so that the thin end comes out of the fish’s mouth. Pull the thin end of the lemongrass firmly but gently so as much of the stalk sticks out of the mouth as possible; tuck the rest of the stalk completely inside the fish.
Heat broiler on low. Whisk egg white until frothy. Use a pastry brush to coat the fish on both sides with the egg white in a thin layer from the head to the tip of the tail. Take big handfuls of the salt and sprinkle all over the fish in a thick layer, from head to tail; it should stick to the skin thanks to the egg white. (Be generous with the salt; you won't be eating the skin.) Lightly press salt into the fish. Repeat salting procedure on the other side of the fish. Place fish on a rimmed baking sheet lined with foil and fitted with a wire rack. Position oven rack 6 inches below broiler, then position baking sheet under the broiler, so the fish is just under the heat source; keep an eye on it to prevent burning.
After 12-15 minutes, remove fish from oven; it should be toasty brown and releasing juices. Use tongs to gently flip the fish over to broil the other side, 5-8 more minutes. (You can also use a fish spatula by slowly and gently sliding it under the fish, while using the tongs to flip it over.) Then remove fish from oven and let rest, 10 minutes.
Remove salt crust before eating the fish. (You can do this at the dinner table, if you'd like a dramatic presentation of the salt-encrusted fish!) Use the tip of a sharp knife to make an L-shaped cut just through the salt crust: start at the tail, cut along the backbone toward the gills, then down toward the belly of the fish. Peel back the skin in one piece; then do the same on the other side of the fish. Discard the pieces of skin or leave them on the plate as garnish (it will be too salty to eat). Serve with a bowl of the Spicy Seafood Dipping Sauce. Note: Because the crust makes it difficult to check for doneness, it's best to use an instant-read thermometer. The fish is done when the thermometer inserted into the flesh at the thickest part of the fish (behind the head, toward the fish’s backbone) registers 125 degrees F.
Spicy Seafood Dipping Sauce
Preheat charcoal grill according to grill directions to medium heat, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, peel garlic; slice larger cloves in half. Skewer garlic and place on the grill. Remove chile stems, skewer sideways, and place on the grill. Grill garlic and chiles for 8-10 minutes, flipping after 4 minutes. Note: Alternatively, garlic and chiles can be charred in the oven. Preheat to broil. Place on a baking sheet 4-6 inches under the heat source for 6-8 minutes, flipping halfway through, until both sides are charred.
Cilantro: Place a cloth under the mortar to keep it stable. Trim half of the cilantro stems, roughly chop, and place into the mortar along with the salt. Use pestle to pound the stems and salt into a paste. Finely chop remaining cilantro bunch (stems and leaves), and set aside.
Sauce: Garlic and chiles are done when they're soft, cooked through, and lightly charred. Remove from skewers and place into the mortar. Pound into the cilantro-salt mixture to break the ingredients down to a smooth paste. Add sugar, lime juice, and fish sauce to the mortar; stir around to combine. Add 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro (if there's any remaining, save for another recipe); transfer to a bowl and serve. Makes about 3/4 cup. You can store it in the refrigerator in a sealed container for several days, but it tastes best immediately after it's made.