I like a meal that can look me squarely in the eye. But that’s not the only charm of cooking a whole fish.
Complete with bones and skin, a whole fish has more flavor and stays juicier and moister than the usual fillets and steaks. This is the case no matter the cooking method, but it’s especially true when it comes to the grill.
The intense heat of the grill can dry out delicate fish flesh, sending it from perfect to petrified in a matter of seconds. Look away to swat a mosquito, and your dinner may be lost.
Whole fish are more forgiving. The skin and bones keep the juices from evaporating too quickly, acting as insulation. And an added bonus for lovers of crisp fish skin: The grill will get you there, perhaps even more easily than a sauté pan. The only downside to grilling a whole fish is that the skin tends to stick to the grate. This is easily remedied by using a grill basket. But if you don’t have one, use a flat metal spatula, gently easing it under the fish skin before flipping, then hold your breath and hope for the best. If the skin rips, fear not. A garnish of chopped herbs hides all and tastes good, too.
As far as other seasonings go, a hit of salt coupled with the smokiness of the grill can be enough for mild fish: trout, dorade, branzino or anything else you like. But if you want to add aromatics — citrus, ginger, garlic, onions — the fish cavity is an ideal place to do so. Season the cavity with salt, stuff it with thinly sliced aromatics, then oil the skin, and you’ll be ready to go.
Here, I use lemongrass, sliced lime, cilantro stems and shallots inside the fish to give it a Thai perfume. I repeat those flavors in an accompanying sauce, adding Thai chile for heat, mint for verve, fish sauce for funk, and coconut milk for sweetness.
I usually serve family or guests their own whole fish (about a pound each), warning them about the bones. But if you are more refined, you can filet the fish after cooking, scooping the meat off the skeleton and serving it neatly, without bones and head.
At that point, the bones and head have done their work, and what’s left is tender flesh.