On the weekend following Thanksgiving, a condition we might refer to as Leftovers Fatigue typically sets in. The siren song of starches and turkey sandwiches suddenly grates the ears. The idea of pecan pie makes my teeth ache and my jeans are not fitting as well as they did on Wednesday. There’s an easy antidote, friends, with absolutely no turkey involved: roasted branzino. Fresh, simple and from the sea. Doesn’t that sound appealing right about now? Make a quick salad or polish off the last of the brussel sprouts with these guys and you’ve got dinner.
Depending on what’s available near you, you can easily substitute striped bass or rainbow trout for this recipe, but I love the delicate, snowy-white tenderness of branzino, also known as Mediterranean sea bass. When people say they prefer a milder fish, a not-too-fishy fish, branzino is exactly what they’re talking about. It’s heaven.
Have your fishmonger (or your fish guy, if “fishmonger” feels too 19th century) de-scale and clean the fish, leaving the bones intact. And if leaving the heads on the branzini strikes you as too confrontational, shall we say, feel free to have him or her remove them; leaving the bones insulates the delicate flesh from the heat of the oven, but a missing head won’t affect things all that much. (And I totally get the aversion to eyeballs, by the way. I had the strongest urge to Photoshop a pair of Looney Tunes-style X’s over the eyes in this photo.)
Still wary of the whole-fish-at-home scenario? I can tell you that filleting is decidedly not among my skill set, either. I’ve just never really gotten the hang of it, but I’ve found that even with my limited aptitude, handling a whole branzino is remarkably easy to do, easier than other types of fish, for some reason. The skin practically falls off and the whole backbone will peel away from the meltingly tender flesh in one fell swoop, pin bones included. Ta-daa! And if, horror of horrors, your fillet falls apart in a giant flaky pile (there’s a reason you don’t see an “after” picture today) who cares, anyhow? You’ll have a delicious, healthy supper either way.
For an even quicker preparation, you can certainly skip the seasoned breadcrumbs, but they are really tasty (oh capers, how I love thee) and add a toasty, aromatic crunch, a wonderful contrast to the silky texture of the fish. The next time I make this, I might double the breadcrumbs and sprinkle the leftovers on roasted cauliflower or butternut squash soup the next day.
See? Leftovers aren’t so tiresome after all. After this dinner I might even be ready for turkey again. Might.
Whole Roasted Branzino
Inspired by the Zuni Café Cookbook and Food & Wine magazine; serves two and doubles easily
Two whole branzini, about 1 lb each, scaled, gutted and cleaned but with head, tails, and bones intact
1/2 C panko-style breadcrumbs
3 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp shallots, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 medium lemon
1/8 tsp salt
1/4 tsp rosemary, minced, plus two additional sprigs (and more for garnish, if desired)
2 sprigs thyme (optional)
1/4 tsp dried parsley
1 Tbsp capers (drained and rinsed), roughly chopped
1/4 C white wine
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bring the fish to cool room temperature. Slice half the lemon, reserving the other half. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and spritz or lightly grease with olive oil. Place the branzini on the sheet and season the cavity of each fish with salt and pepper. Stuff each with lemon slices and whole sprigs of rosemary and thyme. Lightly oil the outside of the branzini (both sides) with a tablespoon or so of olive oil for each. Splash both fish with juice from the reserved lemon half and 1/4 C of white wine.
Bake the fish, flipping over halfway through, for about 15-20 minutes, or until it registers an internal temperature of 125 degrees.
Meanwhile, prepare the breadcrumbs: in a medium skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the shallots, garlic, capers, rosemary, parsley and cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes. Add the breadcrumbs and 1/8 tsp. salt and mix to combine. Continue to cook until the breadcrumbs toast a deep golden brown.
When done, transfer the whole fish to a platter and garnish with rosemary sprigs and lemon slices (remove the stuffed ones if you’ve used them all). Sprinkle with some of the breadcrumbs and serve the remainder table side.
To fillet: with a thin, sharp and flexible knife, make two cuts (perpendicular to the spine) to remove the head and tail. Make small cuts to remove the spiny dorsal fins and other little fins. Scrape off the skin, if desired, which will come off easily. Run the blade (parallel to the table) underneath the top flap of meat to separate it from the spine. (It will be very tender and flaky, so don’t worry if it falls apart. Use a wedge-shaped pie server or spatula to help you transfer it to the plate.) Peel the backbone away from the fish. If desired, run the blade underneath this meat to remove the bottom layer of skin. Discard all the detritus and sprinkle the fillets generously with breadcrumbs.