One of the great pleasures of eating at seafood restaurants in coastal Spain is watching the waiters rush to and fro, ceremoniously bearing platters of whole fish baked in an armor of sea salt to be filleted with great pomp at the table. Quintessentially Mediterranean, this method of cooking seals in the fish’s sweet flavor. And, since the salt crust is removed at serving time, the fish isn’t salty in the least. The warm cherry-tomato vinaigrette is the perfect accompaniment.—Anya von Bremzen
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 cups kosher salt
5 large egg whites, lightly beaten
1 whole sea bass (about 2 pounds), cleaned and scaled (see Note)
4 medium-size garlic cloves; 3 smashed with the flat side of a knife, 1 minced
2 fresh flat-leaf parsley sprigs, plus 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley leaves
2 lemon slices, cut in half
1 pinch saffron threads, crumbled
1 small shallot, minced
3/4 cup halved cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoons chicken stock or broth
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar, preferably aged
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C).
2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and lightly coat the paper with olive oil. Place the salt and egg whites in a large bowl and stir until evenly moistened. The paste should just hold together. If it doesn’t, sprinkle in a little water. Place the fish on the prepared baking sheet and fill the cavity with the smashed garlic, parsley sprigs, and lemon slices. Pat the salt mixture all over the top and sides of the fish to completely cover it. Bake the fish until cooked through, about 25 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, heat 2 1/2 teaspoons olive oil in a small skillet over low heat. Add the saffron and cook for 5 minutes. Add the shallot and minced garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the cherry tomatoes and cook until slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Add the chicken stock and cook just until the tomatoes begin to break down, about 3 minutes longer. Remove the skillet from the heat. Add the vinegar and chopped parsley and season with pepper to taste.
4. To serve, using a wooden spoon, tap the salt crust to crack it and lift it off the fish in large pieces. Carefully remove the fish skin. Run a knife along the backbone of the fish to separate the top fillet, then lift it off the bones. Remove the bones and transfer the filleted fish to plates. Top with the tomato vinaigrette and serve right away.
Note: Here I recommend salt baking a 2-pound sea bass to serve two. For a larger crowd, either bake two fishes or one larger one, increasing the cooking time 4 to 5 minutes for each additional pound.
Recipe © 2005 by Anya von Bremzen. All rights reserved.