Traditionally, this deliciously sweet and sour stuffed fish is cooked with its scales, which prevents it from sticking to the pan. For scaled fish like the one here, Persian cook Mahin Gilanpour Motamed suggests brushing the pan with oil and lining it with parchment paper, so the fish comes out of the pan easily and intact.
“It’s almost impossible to end up with dry, overcooked fish when cooking it whole,” says chef Steve Corry. “The bones protect against extreme heat, plus they add flavor and moisture.” Here, Corry pan-roasts whole branzino, Mediterranean sea bass, that’s stuffed simply with lemon and rosemary. He makes the easy compound butter, which melts on the fish to become a sauce, with wild Tunisian mountain capers, although any caper will work.
Laurent Gras uses ginger, fennel and lemon to flavor his lean, protein-rich striped bass as it steams; then he serves it over a lemony shaved-fennel salad, an excellent source of vitamin C. “Instead of using oil or butter, I like to steam fish with aromatic ingredients,” Gras says. “You get as much flavor this way—usually more.”
Whole fish are usually less expensive than fillets, and the presentation is more impressive. Chef Tim Love generally opts for wild salmon, which has a more delicate flavor than farm-raised. Cooking an eight-pound fish might sound intimidating, he acknowledges, but it’s surprisingly fast and simple—though filleting the salmon can require some finesse.
Thai cooks love tilapia for its versatility. “You can steam it, fry it or grill it,” Andy Ricker says about this mild white fish. Here, he stuffs whole fish with lemongrass, encases it in a salt crust, and cooks it over a charcoal fire. Be sure the heat stays relatively low, or the crust will burn before the fish is ready to emerge, moist and fragrant.