Most fish market shoppers opt for fillets over whole fish when selecting dinner. Fillets cook faster, are easier to discern temperature on, and for most people, they are much less intimidating. But there is a world of textures and flavors that come with consuming the whole fish that fillets just can't match. Preparing a whole fish will slow down dinner, for sure, but for the better. It will transport your evening from a simple family dinner into a familial event, removing the walls from the room and placing all who partake on some island far away, filled with roars of laughter and the silence of good food.
Preparing whole fish has its advantages when it comes to retrieving the optimal flavor from your dish. The skin crisps like fatty bacon. The chewy tail portions offer firm textures that juxtapose perfectly with the succulent belly meat that evaporates on your palate. The center cut portions seem moister than regular fillets and deliver all the flavor of the bones. Then there are the best cuts of fish that you never get to eat if you settle for fillets: the cheeks, head, collars, and the jaw. These are the prizes of the fisherman and are not to be ignored. These nooks and crannies of the fish are the most delicious parts and each offers a different texture, flavor, and experience.
So now that you know why to eat the whole fish, here's how. I normally recommend one pound of whole fish per person eating. Let's say you have five people, then I would recommend a five pound fish. It may seem like too much, but remember, you lose anywhere from forty to sixty percent of the fish to bones, guts, and gills. Fish that I recommend for grilling whole include striped bass, snapper, black bass, grouper, tilefish, sea trout, bluefish, bronzino, and dorade. These are all round fish and while it is possible to grill flat fish such as fluke and dover sole, in this article we will focus on grilling whole round fish because there are more varieties of this type of fish readily available.
Most respected markets will scale and gut your fish for you. In case you do not have this option, it is quite easy to scale and gut your own. To scale your fish, simply purchase a fish scaler or curry comb (a serrated knife works in a pinch) and, starting from the tail, run the blade against the scales. A good tip is to fill your sink with water and perform this part under water, preventing the scales from landing all over your kitchen. When that happens you could be finding scales for several weeks in the strangest places, trust me. Once you have thoroughly removed the scales and after carefully checking the belly and behind the head for hard to reach places, you then want to gut your fish. You do this by taking a knife or scissors, and starting from the anal vent on the underneath of the fish, slit the belly all the way to the chin being careful not to place the tip of the blade too deep, as you don't want to puncture the stomach cavity. Snip the gills at the collarbone and throat, and pull the gills out with the viscera and discard. Inside the belly along the spine are two dark bulbs, these are the kidneys and you will want to remove them also. If you want to make it easier to take the fillets off after grilling, then it is recommended to remove dorsal and anal fins with a knife or scissors, but this isn't necessary if you are serving it family style and enjoy picking at the meat from the platter. Depending on the size of the fish, make three to four shallow incisions on the skin at the thickest part of the fish about an inch or so apart, this will help it cook evenly.
It's time now time to grill. Place your fish on a large platter or casserole dish. Pour olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice on both sides, turning the fish to coat. Season the fish with salt and pepper. A nice trick is to add bread crumbs, herbs such are thyme, oregano, and parsley and coat the outside of the fish, turning it so the oil soaks up the crumbs and herbs. Let the fish marinate at room temperature for one to two hours. As the marinade thickens, rub it into the belly and crevices of the fish. Heat the grill to 350*F and oil the grill rack thoroughly. When cooking whole fish you generally want to cook it for 10-12 minutes per inch of thickness, two thirds of the time on one side to get a crispy skin, then turning it for the remainder. Closing the grill top will speed the process, but be sure to keep an eye out for over-cooking if you choose to do this.
Once the fish is ready, remove it from the grill and serve it crispy side up. I usually like to present the whole fish to the table, like a trophy, and let everyone dig in family style to share in the accomplishment. Be sure to pick at the prized meats in the face, head, and belly, there are many hidden gems of flavor, so be thorough.