When you think about it, the ugly duckling story is one that is played out in the world of food as well. Quite often we come across dishes with off-putting names that end up tasting absolutely marvelous. For example, take a gander at this salt-crusted snapper. To start off, I think it’s the idea of encrusting a piece of fish, meat, or any food item for that matter, with an inch of salt that scares people away. Nobody wants to be eating a salt-lick. That’s exactly what my mom said when I proposed making this over a year ago. I had read an article in a food magazine about the wonders of baking fish in a salt crust, and after browsing at their recipes, I too was eager to try it out. Yet I got the expected, “are you crazy, it’s going to taste so salty” answer. That didn’t quite stop me, though, and when an opportunity to cook an elegant meal arose this past Mother’s Day, salt crusts immediately popped into memory, and this time my mother said yes. However, this did not mean that it was going to be easy. There were so many obstacles that I had to overcome for this dish to happen. They included working with an entire fish, something which I had never done before, designing an entire seafood recipe from scratch, and yes, dealing with the constant, “it’s not going to work” comments from my mom. On top of everything, there was the expectation that this Mother’s Day luncheon would feature me making dishes that would blow everyone way. Indeed, that is exactly what I did with this recipe.
For those of you who are skeptical with the whole idea of working with a lifetime’s allotment of salt, allow me to explain to you the magic of this age-old tradition. For starters, this technique has stood the test of time as it has been used widely in the Mediterranean as a method of cooking all sorts of meats for hundreds of years. Encasing meats in salt actually allows the original flavors of the meat to shine through and the moist meat you will receive in return cannot be replicated in any other fashion. Finally, its’ probably the presentation that sells it. Yes, I am not one to care about how food looks. You could serve me something that looks like it came out of a rat’s rear-end, but if it tastes and smells delicious, you best believe that I will try it. However, I too am human, and I guess the saying, “you eat with your eyes first” is one that is true in many instances. It certainly doesn’t hurt to feast your eyes upon the serving process. The dome of salt is cracked open and lifted away to reveal some of the juiciest fish you may have seen. Perfumed with the aromas of fennel, garlic, and lemon the snapper makes your mouth water as the skin is peeled away to reveal a very moist and tender fish that is sliced up in a matter of seconds. Drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon, the snapper is alive with the flavors of the Italian peninsula and reminiscent of a seaside lunch I once had in beautiful town of Sorrento, tucked away in the Amafi Coast. At the same time, it’s inherent sweet flavor still shines through. Devoured in a matter of minutes, salt-crusted snapper may not be salty, but it sure is one tasty morsel of elegant cuisine.
Recipe and Tutorial: Salt-Crusted Snapper
Okay, so the deal with this dish is that it can be done with a variety of fish and a cabinet of spices, so what I am going to provide is not an exact recipe, but more so a tutorial on how to cook with a salt crust. Therefore after reading this, you hopefully can set off to create your own salt-encrusted masterpiece!
First, we must start off with the fish. For this method, you do need to use a whole fish because you want the skin on both sides of the meat to protect it from the salt from seeping through. I happened to use a yellow tail snapper, but you can go ahead and use whatever kind of fish you have. Red snapper, salmon, tilapia, halibut, and trout would also work wonderfully here. The fish should be anywhere from around 1-2 pounds in weight, but you can go larger if you’d like.
The fish can be prepared as simple as you’d like. If you want to go for an au naturale approach, you can perhaps just rub some olive oil and salt on the inside and then encrust the fish. If you want flavor, like myself, go ahead and fill the cavity with a blend of aromatic vegetables and spices. I first rubbed the insides of the fish with a mixture of olive oil, minced garlic, crushed red pepper, dried oregano, and fennel seeds. Then I stuffed the cavity with lemon slices, sliced fennel, and sprigs of fresh parsley.
Once you have filled the cavity, allow the fish to marinate in the fridge for a couple of hours so that all of the flavors can soak in.
Now it’s time to make the salt crust. A basic salt crust consists of beaten egg whites and, you guessed it, SALT. You can also add spices into the crust, and this will flavor whatever you are cooking. I mixed in some black pepper, dried oregano, and fennel seeds into my crust. To actually make the crust, you start by beating an egg white till you have soft peaks. Then proceed with folding in the salt till you have a mixture which resembles wet sand. I used about 1 egg white for about every cup of salt, but those measurements are just an approximation. It’s sort a matter of tinkering around with the egg whites and the salt till you get the desired consistency. You’re also going to need a lot of salt. I used around 2 cups of salt to cover a one pound specimen of snapper.
When the salt crust is ready, you can go ahead and cover your fish. Make sure to cover the fish completely. You will need a pretty thick layer of salt (somewhere in the neighborhood of around 1 inch thick). Do not be shy with the salt and don’t be afraid that it’s going to be a salty nightmare (trust me, it’s going to be okay).
Bake the fish in a 350 degree oven till the salt crust is golden brown. This is the best indicator of completion, and I found that a 1 pound snapper took around 30-35 minutes to cook. The beauty of this recipe is that the salt crust protects the fish from overcooking so you won’t end up with a tough fillet if you left it in the oven for a little too long.
Let the snapper rest for a couple of minutes and then break open the crust by tapping on it with a knife or fork. The crust should break apart easily and you should be able to lift it away from the fish without having too much of a salty residue.
Then, peel away the skin to reveal the moistest fish you have ever seen! Cut up the meat into fillets and serve with a drizzle of good quality extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle of lemon juice. You serve the fish with whatever you like. I served mine with some braised cannelini beans with swiss chard and an orange and red onion salad.