Swimming Upstream

The first time I was served an entire fish was many years ago. I was in Paris, having dinner in a  quaint little bistro. Alone.

Not knowing what to order I glanced around, the choice was between bifteck and poisson, I went with poisson. I wasn’t prepared when the prepared fish arrived in front of me, in it’s entirety! My server, who wasn’t interested in helping me out, finally took pity and demonstrated with ease and speed, and a slight scowl on her face, just how simple it was to debone a fish. I think she was muttering derogatory comments under her breath, in French, all the while.

Young and eternally optimistic (read: naive!), I had purchased a student’s fare ticket to Europe with intentions to travel, study French in the south of France, then travel some more. Once in Europe I was to be greeted by a representative who would help with accommodations, sightseeing and anything else I, and my fellow travelers required. What I failed to realize was classes were back in full swing come October and most students were back in school rather than ‘Eurail-ing’ from country to country! Aside from one other girl, there was no group of student travelers, I was on my own. No representative. No accommodations. Nothing!!


I spent three days wandering the city, visiting museums and galleries, sitting in cafes and eating in the random bistros I happened upon, (all sounds pretty idyllic!), trying to speak to locals but being ignored – my schoolgirl french was pretty pathetic – while residing in a teeny tiny room on the Left Bank, with a teeny tiny sink used to wash my clothes and chill wine. Some things are universal!!





I’ve had both good and bad experiences grilling whole fish: when I’m successful it’s superb, when I’m not, it’s a mess.

You buy that beautiful whole fish. Clean it up. Generously season it with herbs and spices and oil, then put it on a hot grill. The skin sticks and although it will still taste delicious, it’s a pain in the neck to get off the barbecue, sometimes becomes too dry, and looks pathetic on the plate (which doesn’t really bother me!). Never experienced this? Lucky you!

If ever I have the chance to eat grilled fish, I do – every Mediterranean restaurant I’ve ever eaten at – but at home I often go another route. Oven roasting. Occasionally I use the salt-crust method, but more often than not I rub olive oil over the fish, sprinkle it with seasonings and wrap the whole thing in tinfoil, then roast in the oven. (If you don’t want to use tin foil wrap it in parchment paper instead, or use a well greased glass pyrex dish which you can cover.) It’s simple. It’s fairly quick. The fish seldom sticks (note I say seldom … nothing’s always perfect!). And it’s moist and delicious.

Be creative. If you don’t have fresh rosemary use thyme, or dill, or just basil, or add tarragon, or whatever you have. Nothing on hand? Use dried herbs. If you have no lemons use oranges. If you don’t like garlic just leave it out. If you enjoy slightly spicy fish sprinkle some aleppo pepper flakes.

Always try to get the freshest fish available (nothing smelly, and check that the eyes are clear), then your fish should taste great even if you use only salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon.


This is another of those recipes that’s more ‘direction and suggestion’ rather than actual ‘measurements and exactness’.

I often make two fish at a time, especially if they are on the smaller side. (And the fish is great for leftovers.) Double up on the fresh herbs, garlic and shallot, and use the entire lemon. Your cooking time will still be approximately the same.

1½ lb Whole fish, like Branzino, Dorado or Red Snapper. Scaled, cleaned, rinsed and patted dry. With a sharp knife score each side 2-3 times.

Olive Oil 1 Lemon, cut in half from stem to end and then sliced into ¼”-wide half-rounds

1-2 Large Shallots, sliced into rounds

2-3 garlics, sliced thin

4 sprigs of fresh Rosemary: 2 for inside the cavity, 1 for under the fish, 1 for the top of the fish

Fresh Basil, or Dill, optional, for inside the cavity

Kosher Salt

Ground Black Pepper IMG_2159Heat the oven to 375 degrees, roast.

Place a large piece of tin foil on a cookie sheet – this should be large enough to be able to fold the top closed after dressing the fish.

Place the fish on the prepared cookie sheet. Generously rub the entire fish, including the cavity, with olive oil.

Sprinkle the fish, and cavity, with kosher salt and black pepper.

Tuck some sliced garlic inside the score marks and in the cavity, putting any remaining garlic around the fish.

Inside the cavity lay 2-3 pieces of lemon, 2 sprigs of rosemary and a few slices of shallot. Under the fish put 2 slices of lemon, 1 sprig of rosemary and a couple slices of shallot. Repeat on top of the fish.

As with the garlic, place any remaining shallot around the fish. Close the tin foil, or parchment, and place in the middle of a hot oven.

Roast for 25 minutes. For a 2 pound fish roast for 30 minutes, if you have a very large fish it may require extra roasting time: check for flakiness along one of the score lines on the side.IMG_2166 Remove from oven and open the tin foil. The fish should be sitting in a some liquid.

Leave the foil open and the fish exposed and return the fish to the oven for another 5 minutes.

Serve whole, or debone and serve in pieces. If there is any sauce remaining at the bottom of the tin foil, spoon it up and drizzle it over the fish. IMG_2169

6 thoughts on “Swimming Upstream

    1. susan Post author

      What a nice thing to say – thanks Leah. xo
      It was a great start to a year filled with fun and adventure!


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