I know more than a few folks who get queasy when their meal stares back at them. Whether it's with glassy (as it should be the case at the fishmonger's) or cloudy (sizzling straight out of the oven) eyes, fish especially freaks people out. They much prefer a more anonymous filet-type of relationship.
But I can only think of a handful of things more satisfying than buying, cooking and eating a whole fish, face and all. Especially now when time is as scarce as cheap gasoline and there's a prevailing pressure in the kitchen to go over the top with holiday decadence.
There's a meditative virtue to navigating between the needle-bones with a pair of chopsticks for morsels of flaky meat; the pride and showmanship of fileting a whole fish in front of your friends like a career French waiter. Oh, and the cheeks. You have to
eat savor those tender, tender cheeks.
Such enjoyment is simple. Simpler than finding a Christmas goose or peeling mounds of potatoes. Sure, there's a dramatic rock salt crust, requiring the eater to excavate to an exquisite dinner. But the simplest being a matter of taking your whole fish already gutted and cleaned (thank you, Cody and C.J., my hams of fishmongers), making sure they fit into a decent roasting pan and adding a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, a scattering of woody, fresh herbs (the tender ones go in after the cooking with just enough heat to coax the aromas out onto the flesh), sea salt, and a squeeze of lemon juice. If it's a party, might as well get the fish as soused as the guests with a splash of white wine. Place this into the dry heat of a 400-degree oven and forget about it until the eyes turn opaque and cloudy and a fin can be easily pulled out from the flesh.
You could get fancy and make a persillade (a sauce of chopped parsley, lemon juice, salt, and olive oil) to dip in the steam chunks of fish. But I like mine dipped into the juices still sizzling at the bottom of my favorite roasting dish.
Especially the cheeks.
Other ideas for a whole fish:
Fresh lime leaves and rice vinegar in place of other aromatics and lemon juice * Plain with sea salt and olive oil * A quick dipping sauce of soy, chopped ginger, chopped green onion, and Korean chile powder * Peeled and pounded stalks of lemon grass for an herb, a bit of fish sauce, soy, palm sugar, chopped chiles, and grated ginger for a fresh dipping sauce ...
So ... how do you go about handling your whole fish?