Recipe courtesy of Isaac Toups

Whole Salt-Baked Fish

Even though you're baking a whole fish in a mound of salt, it won't come out salty -- the salt just seals in the juices. It's a very forgiving way of cooking fish. And though it might look complicated, it's not. I use redfish, but any white-fleshed mild fish will work. And if you've got a bigass pan, you can do this with a much larger fish, or a couple of them. You're really only limited by the size of the pan.
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  • Level: Intermediate
  • Total: 50 min (includes resting time)
  • Active: 20 min
  • Yield: 2 servings
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Ingredients

1 (2 1/2-pound) whole fish, gutted, scaled, and fins removed -- but leave the head and tail

1 lemon, cut into 6 round slices 

4 large sprigs fresh thyme 

4 bay leaves 

2 cloves garlic, crushed 

1 (3-pound) box kosher salt 

4 large egg whites 

2 tablespoons lemon juice plus zest of 1/2 lemon

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard 

1 teaspoon kosher salt 

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper 

Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Stuff the cavity of the fish with lemon slices, thyme, bay leaves, and garlic.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, mix the salt and egg whites with your hands; it will become the consistency of wet sand. 
  3. In a large baking dish or rimmed baking sheet that is large enough to fit the entire fish (it's okay if the fish only just fits), lay one-third of the salt mixture down, roughly in the shape of the fish. Place the fish on top of the salt mixture and pack the remaining salt mixture around the fish, leaving exposed the area from the eyes to the nose, and also the tail fin. The salt mixture should fully encase the fish, but may not fill the pan. In fact, unless you use a really narrow pan, you'll probably leave most of the pan exposed. 
  4. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the internal temperature of the fish is 130 to 135 degrees F. Depending on the exact size of your fish, your cooking time may vary. Don't break the salt crust while it's cooking or you'll let the juices escape. If you have one of those nice thermometers with the wires that you can leave in the oven while you cook to determine temperature, use that, and pack the salt around the probe to seal it in before cooking. If you don't have one of those fancy thermometers, check the temp by going through the exposed mouth with a probe thermometer. Once done, remove the fish from oven and let rest for 5 minutes before serving. 
  5. While the fish is resting, whisk together the lemon juice and zest, oil, Dijon, salt, and pepper to make a lemon vinaigrette to serve over the fish. 
  6. To remove the fish from the salt shell, use a butter knife and a wooden mallet or spoon. Like a paleontologist, I try to guess where the dorsal fin would be. Hit the fish right there, in the middle of the back (remember it's laying on its side). I place the tip of the butter knife where the dorsal fin was and tap it with the mallet or spoon, putting it in and giving it a wiggle. I score all the way around the fish, like I'm excavating it, so I can remove the salt dome in one piece. It doesn't mess anything up if you don't get it off in the one piece, but it just looks cooler if you do. Once you've gone all the way around the outline of the fish, remove the top part of the salt dome. 
  7. The skin is a little chewy, but it still tastes good, so help yourself to a piece. Cook's reward. Then go under the skin with a fork, down to the spine, and slide across the bottom to filet the fish from the spine. You might get it all in one filet. But most times you have to go back and clean it up. 
  8. Then take the mallet and butter knife, and place the knife at the base of the spine where it meets the head. Tap the handle end of the butter knife with the mallet to crack the spine. Remove the entire spine and bones. With a fork, slide along the bottom of the fish, between the flesh and the salt crust, to remove the other fish filet. You probably won't get the skin off cleanly with this filet, and that's fine. 
  9. This will yield two 10-ounce (or so) filets. Place each filet on a plate and finish with a spoonful of the lemon vinaigrette and a sprinkle of salt and parsley on top.