Pesce intero al forno in crosta di sale

Pesce intero al forno in crosta di sale Whole fish baked in salt Serves 6-8 The southern Italians often cook fish whole, especially baked in salt. The basic principle is to pack salt around the whole fish before baking, whether it’s a whole sea bass or turbot or tuna (as in the picture) or smaller fish like sardines. Any whole fish can be baked in salt, but you have to gut it first. The other thing to bear in mind is that you don’t want the salt to get into any exposed parts of the fish – the salt is not used for seasoning, it’s part of the cooking method. What happens is that when the salt goes into the oven it bakes hard like pottery, giving you really dry and crispy fish on the outside while retaining the juices and natural flavours on the inside. The basic way to make a salt crust is to add water to salt (always use sea salt) and pack it all round the fish. With little bream, mullet or sardines you can keep the salt 1cm/½ inch thick, but if you move on to a 3kg/7lb sea bass, for example, you need to end up with 3cm/1¼ inches of salt around it. I’ve improved my old way of doing it by adding an egg to make an even harder baking case. I’m also adding fennel seeds and lemon and orange peel to infuse a lovely subtle flavour. PS You may think this sounds like a bit of a palaver but it really is very easy. # 2kg/4½lb fish (see above), scaled and gutted # a few sprigs of fresh herbs (basil, parsley, herby fennel tops) # 2 lemons, 1 sliced and 1 zested # 3kg/7lb coarse sea salt (for every 1kg/1lb 2oz fish you need 1.5kg/3½lb salt) # zest of 1 orange # 1 egg, preferably organic, beaten # a handful of fennel seeds # olive oil Preheat the oven to 200°C/425°F/gas 7. After your fish has been gutted, stuff the cavity with a mixture of nice herbs and aromatics such as basil, parsley, herby fennel tops and slices of lemon. Mix the salt with the orange and lemon zest, egg and fennel seeds. Pour in a few splashes of water and scrunch the mix together until it looks like wet sand. Sprinkle about 1cm/½ inch of the salt on a baking tray, making a little bed for each fish. Rub the fish skin with oil and place on top of the salt. Pour the rest of the salt on top, patting it down. You don’t have to worry about covering the head and tail. Bake the fish in the preheated oven for 20 to 40 minutes. The timing does depend, however, on the thickness of the salt, your oven, the type and size of fish you’re using and the temperature of the fish when it went into the oven. It’s hard to be 100 per cent accurate, so the best thing to do is prod a fork into the thickest part of the fish, hold it there for 10 seconds, then pull it out quickly and rest the prongs on your lip. If the prongs feel warm the fish is cooked, and if not it needs longer. If you’re still not sure, pull a bit of the salt away and check to see if the flesh pulls away from the bone. If it doesn’t, pop it back in the oven. Serve at the table, breaking open the salt in front of your guests. (It’s handy to have another bowl on hand to put the salt into.)

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