This piece was inspired by a superb dinner I had with a friend of mine not too long ago at Paradiso Ristorante located in Lake Worth, Florida. Classic, fresh, simple, and very superbly Italian.
Though the appetizer, Grigliata di Polipo (Grilled Octopus with Arugula and Shaved Artichokes) was a bit disappointing, the main course—Branzino al Sale (Branzino Baked in Salt, Lemon-Garlic and Extra Virgin Olive Oil Infusion), was the unforgettable note that redeemed Paradiso for any unappetizing appetizer.
This is one of my favourite techniques to cook fish. My mother used to baked with salt…a lot! And while you might think that using this technique will make the meat salty, it doesn’t. The results are moist, tender, delicate and etherial. Not to mention that it is a very easy, clean cooking technique. It might be one of the best ways to prepare fish and treat your friends and family.
Branzino Al Sale (Branzino Baked in Salt)
4 C sea salt or kosher
1 C water
1 whole branzino or snapper, gutted and scaled, rinsed and patted dry
2-4 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
Sea salt and fresh pepper
Few sprigs of fresh herbs—tarragon, sage, rosemary, thyme, parsley
1 lemon, sliced
1 1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon (or 2 if too small)
Lemon wedges for serving
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix the salt and water together to make a dough. (If the mixture is too runny, add more salt, if it is too caky add more water. The dough should hold together when pressed.)
In a medium bowl, combine the oil with the lemon juice. Mix well until there’s no separation.
Cover a baking dish with parchment paper. Cover the bottom of the dish with enough of the salt dough so that the fish can completely lay on top.
Place the fish on top of the salt, rub the cavity of the fish with the garlic, season with salt and pepper, place the fresh herbs, and the lemon slices.
Evenly distribute the lemon-garlic olive oil infusion inside the fish, making sure it is all generously cover. (You don’t need to use it all.)
Cover the fish with the remaining salt, make sure it is completely enclosed.
Bake for 30 minutes. Remove and let it rest for 5-10 minutes.
With the back of a knife, carefully crack the salt and proceed to remove it.
Remove the top meat from the fish, then remove the bones, and finally the meat from the bottom side. Serve with lemon wedges with a fresh seasonal salad or over Mediterranean freekeh.
Prepare Ahead: Lemon Infused Olive Oil
1 large lemon, organic
1 cup olive oil
Using a very sharp paring knife or peeler to remove the zest—just the bright yellow part of the peel, avoiding the bitter white pith—from the lemon.
Put zest and olive oil in a small sauce pan and warm over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes. (Do not allow oil to simmer. Keep the oil just below a simmer.) Remove oil from heat and let cool.
Strain zest out of the oil and place the now lemon-infused oil in a clean jar.
Store in a cool, dark place to use with salads, rice, fish and poultry dishes.