Roasted Whole Fish with Vegetables, Herbs and Citrus

This has become one of my favorite ways to prepare whole fish, roasting it on top of a bed of thinly sliced vegetables seasoned with fresh herbs and citrus. The vegetables create steam to keep the fish moist and the fish adds wonderful flavor to the vegetables. You can create countless variations by simply changing your choices of 1) fish, 2) vegetables, 3) herbs and 4) citrus.

I used pink snapper in the photo above, but you could easily substitute trout, sea bass, bream, mullet or other smaller whole fish. I've also tried a whole salmon, but the longer cooking time resulted in dried out vegetables. With a smaller fish, everything finishes cooking at about the same time.

When shopping for whole fish, look for clear, rounded eyes, not cloudy and sunken in. If they're not already pre-packaged, you can also check for bright red, moist gills, not dark and dried. If you're concerned about sustainability, and really, we all should be, check out Greenpeace's comprehensive list of Fish Shopping Guides. One of my favorites is Monterey Bay Aquarium's list, as they not only list fish to avoid, but also Best Choices and Good Alternatives. And there's an app for that! Also worth checking out is Greenpeace's annual list of the most sustainable seafood retailers (for 2014, the top two were Whole Foods and Safeway).

For vegetables, I especially love fennel, but carrots, summer squash, onions, leeks, parsnips, celery root, tomatoes, brussel sprouts and fresh artichoke hearts are all possibilities. I've also used potatoes which cook up soft like in a potato salad. If you prefer them drier and crispier, I recommend roasting them in a separate tray. You can also do this with other vegetables that don't easily slice thin or require longer or shorter cooking times, such as broccoli, asparagus and radicchio, and then serve them alongside the fish.

Ideas for herbs and aromatics include: garlic, ginger, scallions, shallots, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, oregano, fennel fronds, parsley, cilantro, chiles and lemongrass.

And finally, pick a citrus. Common choices include lemon, lime and orange, but don't forget grapefruit, blood orange and tangerine as well. Use them sliced, juiced or zested.

When cooking fish, a good rule of thumb is to cook for 8-9 minutes per inch of thickness. Start checking a minute or so early, since fish continues to cook after you remove it from the oven. Insert the tip of a sharp knife into the thickest part and lift to see if the flesh is mostly opaque with a slight sheen of translucence.

Have fun discovering your favorite combination!

Roasted Whole Fish with Vegetables, Herbs and Citrus
Serves 4-5

Preheat oven to 400°F. Oil a rimmed baking sheet large enough to fit fish without touching each other. Set aside.

Using a mandoline or knife, thinly slice (1/16" - 1/8" thick):
1 large fennel bulb
2-3 carrots
1-2 zucchini
OR any combination of vegetables for a total of 4-5 cups sliced vegetables

Layer slices in the oiled baking sheet, overlapping slightly and seasoning lightly between layers with:
fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, tarragon, oregano, parsley)

Rinse and pat dry:
2-3 whole fish, total 3-4 lbs

Season fish inside and out with salt and pepper, then stuff cavity with any of the following:
lemon, lime or orange, sliced
garlic cloves, smashed
ginger, sliced and smashed
chiles, sliced
fresh herbs (parsley, cilantro, thyme, rosemary, oregano, fennel fronds)

Rub both sides of fish with oil and lay on top of vegetables. If you like, place on top of fish:
slices of citrus fruit
scattering of fresh herbs
Squeeze over fish and vegetables:
juice from 1 lemon or lime or 1/2 orange

Measure thickest part of fish and roast for 8-9 minutes per inch thickness. Start checking doneness a minute or two early. Flesh should flake and be opaque with a touch of translucence.

Remove from oven and let rest for 5 minutes to finish cooking before serving.

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