The first time I tasted Pesce al Sale was at the restaurant Molo 13 in Milan. It was a memorable meal after a long journey involving a disgruntled border guard, Italian shoes, finicky headlights and the vortex of controlled chaos found driving on Milan's ringroad at rush hour. Read on here to appreciate just how welcome our arrival and meal at Molo 13 was within this context.
Many years later, sadly not in Europe and missing the Italian language, I often prepare a Whole Fish Baked in Sea Salt when we are entertaining with friends. This is a dish that is surprisingly easy to prepare despite its dramatic presentation. The entire fish is encased in sea salt, baked in the oven and presented whole at the table. Its hardened crust of sea salt and egg white is cracked open to reveal a succulent, steaming and aromatic fish. Have your fishmonger clean and descale the fish when you purchase it. The fish can be baked simply as is, or stuffed with a combination of lemon slices, garlic and fennel fronds. Serve the fillets drizzled with good quality extra-virgin olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon.
Whole Fish Baked in Sea Salt - Pesce al Sale
One whole fish, 5-6 lbs./2.5-3 kg., such as snapper, rock cod or sea bass, cleaned, gutted and scaled
Optional: Fennel fronds, 2-3 garlic cloves, sliced
2 egg whites
4 pounds coarse sea salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
Parsley Gremolata (see below)
Preheat oven to 450 F. (225 C.)
Place lemon slices, fennel and garlic (if using) in cavity of the fish.
Combine egg whites and sea salt in a bowl. Mix well to moisten salt.
Spread 1/3 salt mixture on bottom of an oven-proof baking dish. Lay fish on top. Pour remaining salt over fish, covering completely. If needed, tail can remain exposed.
Bake in oven 30 - 40 minutes. (If the fish is stuffed with lemon and fennel, it will require additional cooking time, approximately 10 minutes.)
Remove fish from oven and crack crust open with a small hammer or knife. Remove and discard crust.
Fillet the fish. Arrange fish on warm plates, drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice.
Serve garnished with additional lemon wedges and Parsley Gremolata.
*This recipe was chosen as the winner in a competition hosted by Food52 and will be published in their upcoming cookbook. You can find this recipe and many other delicious recipes on their site, and have a chance to cast your votes for favorite recipes.
Combine 1/2 cup finely chopped Italian parsley, 1 minced large garlic clove and the finely grated zest of one untreated lemon in a bowl. Season to taste with a pinch of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve with fish, meat, pasta.
Accompany this dish with:
Steamed New Potatoes with Parsley and Olive Oil
What to Drink?
Try a white Burgundy or Sauvignon Blanc, dry French rosé (Côtes du Rhône, Bandol) or Pinot Noir.