Thursday, December 9, 2010

Salt Crusted Fish - a festive feast

First published in Canberra Times 8 December 2010
Photos by Steve Shanahan

It was at the Il Pirata restaurant in Praiano, a little fishing village on the Amalfi coast of Italy, where we first had fish prepared this way. We were so bowled over by the delicate sea flavours and moist texture that we just had to try making it for ourselves.

The restaurant sits on a rocky terrace, an extension of a cave in the sea cliffs, and gazes over the hazy blue Gulf of Salerno. The shoreline is dotted with brightly painted wooden fishing boats and is overlooked by the Saracen tower built to warn of approaching pirates. Dining tables are on the water’ s edge and the sea keeps time with recording of popular opera arias sung by a former waiter in an endless looping CD.

Evening view from Il Pirata

The fish arrived at our table on a trolley, propelled by a hammer and chisel wielding waiter armed to remove the salty crust. This was done with style and precision, neatly dissecting the fish from its backbone.

I have tried this method using various species of fish and Australian Kingfish seems to provide the best result, probably because of its thicker skin. Other species work well but I suggest you leave the scales on to ensure the salt does not penetrate. However, don’t be concerned as the skin will peel off easily when the salt crust is removed after the fish is baked. If baking a large fish I use a hooded barbeque, although a smaller fish baked in the oven works fine. To remove the salt crust you will need a small hammer and chisel to lift away the salt.

This time, I used a gutted 1.4kg fresh red snapper with the head and tail left on. For anything larger you could have the head removed to enable you to fit the fish in the oven or barbeque. For a larger fish I use two disposable foil pans, one inside the other for strength, with the tail hanging out the end. If cooking a smaller fish I generally use an oven tray and adjust the egg whites and salt ratio accordingly.

This is a great Christmas meal to share with family and friends and provides a spectacle when the salt crust is removed. I like to serve it with a simple crunchy noodle salad, grilled lemons, potato salad and a cold semillon. Don’t forget the arias.

3kg fish serves 8 to 10.

1.4 kg fish serves 4

1.4 kg white fish
4 lemons
3 kg of cooking salt
4 egg whites
2 bunches of fresh whole herbs, any combination of thyme, parsley, sage or oregano

Heat the BBQ or oven to around 220C.

Fish Preparation

Whisk the egg whites in a large bowl with 3 tbsp of water, mixing till just slightly foamy. Add the salt to the egg whites and combine with your fingers until the mixture resembles wet sand. Before putting the fish into the pan place a layer of salt, about 1 cm thick, underneath where the fish will lay. Make this the length of the fish. Then place the patted and dried fish on top of this layer of salt. Cut 1 of the lemons into slices and place inside the fish cavity along with the whole herbs. Pat the remaining salt around the fish until you have the fish sealed inside the salt crust which should be about 1cm thick. Sprinkle a little water over the top of the salt with your fingers to set. The fish should be sealed within the salt crust to allow it to steam and retain moisture.

Cooking the Fish

I generally use only 2 of the 3 barbeque burners and place the fish in the centre of the barbeque with the hood closed. The time required for salt crusted fish is approximately 25 minutes per kilogram. When cooked, let it sit for about 10 minutes before lifting away the salt using a small hammer and chisel. The salt should come away in large pieces and if the skin does not come off with the salt it will peel off easily to expose the moist flesh beneath.

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