Food writer and cooking instructor Christine Rudalevige is a mother of two who recently navigated a family move from agriculturally rich central Pennsylvania to coastal Maine. Eating locally now means more fish on the dinner table. In this biweekly column, Fish on Fridays, she explores family-friendly ways to enjoy sustainable seafood.
Today, Christine considers the prospect of whole-roasted fish on the Thanksgiving menu.
Photo by Joseph De Leo; styled by Mariya Yufest
Giving Thanks for the Fishes
Imagine a wholesale displacement of picture-perfect turkeys by head-on, whole-roasted fishes as the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving feast.
Okay, okay. That thought borders on culinary treason here in the U.S. And I'd hazard a guess that it won't happen as long as folks can conjure up the 1943 Normal Rockwell picture from The Saturday Evening Post that depicted one of America's freedoms, that "from want."
But if you dig deeper into U.S. history, you'll find that a pescetarian-pleasing protein -- usually in the form of an oyster-stuffed cod -- did have a prominent spot on harvest feast tables throughout New England in the 17th century.
So why not resurrect the fishy Thanksgiving tradition with a plate of a more sustainable species for old time’s sake?
If you want a fish to rival the presentation of the big bird, go for a whole salmon. As rated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, wild-caught Pacific salmon and salmon farmed in closed systems (as opposed to those farmed in open nets) are the most sustainable varieties you can buy. That said, experienced fish roasters (like Molly Stevens, author of All About Roasting) advise that running with the latter is the better option because -- with its higher fat content -- responsibly farmed fish can weather high-heat cooking methods without drying out.
You can definitely cover the overcooking margin of error with a 10-pound salmon. Figure that you’ll lose a pound or so by not serving the head (most folks are not ready for that particular confrontation with their food, but make sure you keep it around for fish stock). Headless, you can still get 12-14 servings out of one fish. With that volume, be sure to have some recipes for leftovers (like Honey Mustard Salmon Salad and Leftover Salmon and Parsnip Fish Cakes) at the ready.
You will want to ask your fishmonger to gut any whole fish you buy, remove its fins and gills (these can make your fish bitter), and scrape off its scales. You can do all of these things yourself if you are adventurous. But trust me, if you do, you’ll be picking dried scales off your arms, your apron, your walls, and even pans stored behind closed cabinet doors through Christmas.
Photo by Joseph De Leo; styled by Mariya Yufest
If you’re not ready to go whole hog on the big fish idea, but still want to give your fish eaters a hospitable nod, you can cook smaller, single-portion ones like branzini (a dense, white fish also referred to as European sea bass) or snapper (but stay away from the overfished red kind and choose instead mutton snapper, rainbow snapper, or yellowtail snapper). Both branzini and snapper (one fish generally feeds one fish eater) can easily be roasted in the time it takes for the turkey to rest after its turn in the oven.
Now that I’ve brought up the topic of timing, I’m going to refer you to the Canadian Cooking Method as a rule to live by when cooking fish using conventional methods including grilling, broiling, poaching, steaming, sautéing, planking, and roasting. It's officially called that because the method was first published by the Canadian Department of Marine Fisheries. It's more commonly called the 10-minute rule of thumb for fish cookery. First, you measure the fish at its thickest point. Then you cook the fish for about 10 minutes per inch, turning it halfway through the cooking time. The fish should reach an internal temperature of 145 degrees (135 if you want a medium-rare piece of salmon). If you're cooking it in either foil or a sauce, you add five minutes to the cooking time.
Measuring fish at its thickest point (photo by Christine Rudalevige)
If you're tight on oven space in general on Thanksgiving, fish does great on the grill -- just use a plank (for larger fish) or a fish basket (for smaller ones) -- to keep them from sticking to the grates.
When seasoning your main-dish fish, think about flavor combinations that will jibe with traditional Thanksgiving sides. Stuff your whole salmon with cilantro sprigs, lime, and the syrup from candied jalapeños and Fresno peppers (recipe below), a combination that will sit very well beside most sweet potatoes and not clash with the green bean casserole. Or stuff your smaller whole fish with lemon slices, red onion, and some savory sprigs (recipe here, pictured below) to match the taste profile of traditional turkey sides like mushroom and sausage stuffing and lemon-glazed carrots.
Easy Peasy Roasted Whole Fish (photo by Christine Rudalevige)
Serving the fish is the trickiest part of this whole Thanksgiving meal shuffle. If you’ve chosen to serve one small roasted fish per person (or per pescetarian), make sure each eater has a bone bowl along with a fish knife and fork. If a whole salmon has earned a spot directly on the table, peel the skin off to expose the entire top side of the fish and lift out portions, running a fish spatula along the backbone to draw out individual segments. Next, remove the backbone. It should lift out in one piece to expose the other side of the fish. Slip the fish spatula between the flesh and the bottom layer of skin and gently lift up the pieces to serve.
Whole Roasted Salmon with Candied Chiles and Avocado Crème Fraîche Sauce
1 pound of mixed jalapeños and red Fresno peppers, tops removed, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch rings
1 cup white wine vinegar
2 cups white sugar
2 tablespoons minced garlic (this is the ONLY time I use garlic from a jar!)
1/2 teaspoon celery salt
One whole 10-12 pound salmon, gutted, scaled, gills and fins removed (head removal is optional)
1 lime, cut in half and sliced into half moons
6 shallots, sliced thinly
10 sprigs cilantro
2 whole avocados
1 cup crème fraîche
Juice of half a lemon
Like this post? See Christine's previous topic: Potatoless Fish Cakes.
Christine Rudalevige is a food writer, culinary instructor at Stonewall Kitchen, and mother of two who always fits in three square meals a day -- which occasionally means making up for a skipped breakfast with an ample late-night refrigerator raid.