Everything You Wanted to Know About Whole Fish (But Were Afraid To Ask)

Seeing an eye staring up from a dinner plate used to be an off-putting experience for Utah diners. Fish used to be served cut into steaks, filets and fingers or formed into patties or pureed into a spread. But serving whole fish and making whole fish recipes has become the mark of a sophisticated kitchen. Whole fish—eye to tail fin—is showing up on menus all over Utah. And besides trout, silver-skinned, white-meat branzino is the fish you’ll most often see served whole in local restaurants. And home cooks are using whole fish recipes to brave the whole fish.

Aquarius Fish. Co. co-owner and fish expert Nick Sheldon says the reason for branzino’s current popularity on the plate is simple, “It’s a mild-flavored, mid-price and medium-sized fish.” Branzino is a European bass as opposed to the other chef’s darling, Chilean sea bass, which is a Patagonian toothfish. Also known as Greek sea bass, loup de mer, spigola and robalo, branzino is super easy to cook, according to Sheldon. “Just stuff the belly with herbs or lemon and let the fish speak for itself.”

The Simplest
Whole Fish Recipe

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Drizzle 1 Tbsp. olive oil into a large baking pan; add several slices of red onion seasoned with salt and pepper.

Place 2 cleaned fish, each about 1 pound, in the baking pan and stuff each cavity with 1 lemon wedge, 1 rosemary sprig, and some of the red onion. Pour white wine and lemon juice over each fish and sprinkle with oregano. Drizzle 1 Tbsp. olive oil over the fish.

Bake in the preheated oven until fish is opaque and flakes easily with a fork, about 25 minutes.

Gently slide a spatula between the bones to separate fish; remove all the bones.

Fish in the Fall Americans tend to think of fish as a summer dish–maybe because we associate fish with vacation beaches and lakesides. But it’s really a year-round dish and, like chicken, much of what makes it taste seasonal is the flavorings and side dishes served with fish. Don’t be constrained by the idea of fish and lemon–sage is as lovely with fish as it is with turkey and fish cooked in butter and red wine (recently on the menu at Bambara) is a traditional French dish. In parts of Italy, the Feast of Seven (or thirteen) Fishes is a Christmas tradition. In Poland, the same holiday calls for carp. For obvious reasons, Christmas dinners in Australia include prawns; during its famous Christmas seafood marathon, the Sydney Fish Market sells more than 120 tons of shrimp and tens of thousands of oysters. Aussies light up the grill to cook their seafood; here a festive winter fish is more likely to be served stewed, in a soup or, most impressively, like turkey, roasted whole.

Buying Whole Fish Where, How, When
For information and questions about the sustainability of the fish you’re buying, check out Seafood Watch, a service of Monterrey Bay Aquarium that tracks fishing and fish farming practices. Seafoodwatch.org

  • Your best bets for buying fish locally are:
  • Aquarius Fish Co., 314 W. 300 South, SLC, 801-533-5653
  • Harmons, various locations. Harmonsgrocery.com
  • Whole Foods Market, various locations. Wholefoodsmarket.com

The Delta Factor For those who might question the freshness of seafood served in a high desert restaurant, fishmonger Nick Sheldon has a one word response: “Delta.” Delta’s direct flights to its hub at Salt Lake International Airport have made all the difference to Utah chefs. Fresh-caught fish is only hours away.

Whole Fish on the Plate: 4 places to dine head to tail.

  • J.Wong’s Thai & Asian Bistro
    Whole snapper is traditionally fried whole with sweet Thai chili sauce.
    163 W. 200 South, SLC, 801-350-0888
  • Provisions
    Chef-owner Tyler Stokes put a Thai twist on whole fried branzino.
    3364 S. 2300 East, SLC, 801-410-4046
  • Harbor Seafood & Steak Co.
    Harbor’s simple menu includes whole trout and other special fish, prepared with the diner’s choice of sauce.
    2302 Parleys Way, SLC, 801-466-9827
  • Current Fish and Oyster
    Whole branzino shows up on downtown’s central seafood restaurant.
    279 E. 300 South, SLC, 801-326-3474. The hit of opening night at the city’s new seafood restaurant, Current, was whole branzino—Chef Logan Crews serves it with sautéed greens, marcona almonds, oil and lemon. The Paris serves it al forno—oven-roasted with fennel, onions, garlic and tomato. And Provisions chef-owner Tyler Stokes puts a Thai twist on whole fried branzino.

RECIPE: Whole Fried Branzino from Tyler Stokes at Provisions

  • 1 whole cleaned fish, about 1– 1 1/2 lbs. The market you buy it from will clean it for you, ready to cook
  • 2 Tbsp. chili jam (recipe follows)
  • 2 Tbsp. coconut cream
  • ½ cup fresh herbs (basil, mint, dill, cilantro)
  • ½ lime

Score whole fish lightly through the skin on each side so it will cook evenly. Season with salt and pepper and let rest 5–8 minutes. Heat sufficient oil to cover fish in a deep pot or fryer to 350 degrees. Slide fish into oil gently until it’s submerged, then let it cook 8 minutes. Remove from oil. Let drain and cool slightly, then remove fins.

Place on plate and garnish with fresh herbs, coconut cream and chili jam.

Coconut Cream Reduce canned coconut milk over medium-low heat until it is thick and creamy. Cool.


Chili Jam

  • ¼ cup sunflower oil
  • 12 Thai chilies
  • 2 dried ancho chilies, softened by soaking in hot water
  • 5 shallots, finely chopped
  • 10 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
  • 3 Tbsp. fresh ginger, chopped
  • ½ cup diced tomato
  • ½ cup red wine vinegar
  • ½ cup rice wine vinegar
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. bottled fish sauce

Saute the chilies, shallots, garlic and ginger in the sunflower oil until shallots are translucent. Put in a blender jar with tomatoes, vinegars and sugar. Put back in the pan and cook slowly until thickened to a jam-like consistency. Remove from heat, add fish sauce and let cool. Refrigerate.

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Mary Brown Malouf
Mary Brown Maloufhttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
Mary Brown Malouf is the late Executive Editor of Salt Lake magazine and Utah's expert on local food and dining. She still does not, however, know how to make a decent cup of coffee.

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