Snapper is one of New Zealand’s premium species and in short supply. It seems we all want it filleted, and at around $40.00 a kilo, it is expensive. A small whole fish feeds 2-3 people, and at around $12.99 a kilo (August 2016) you can have a cheap meal. Yep, fish for dinner for $7.00!
1 small whole fish such as snapper, weighing about 600g (about 1¼ pounds), scaled and gutted
Small bunch each coriander (cilantro) and mint, and Vietnamese mint if available
2 cloves garlic, bashed with a mallet and peeled
3-4 small hot red chillies
2-3 slices peeled ginger
3-4 strips lemon peel
3 kaffir lime leaves
¼ tsp flaky sea salt
1½ Tbsp olive oil
Lemon or lime wedges for serving
2-3 smallish tomatoes, halved (optional)
1 Rinse fish, checking for scales. Leave to drain while preparing the aromatics.
2 Put herbs, garlic, chillies, ginger, lemon peel, kaffir lime leaves and salt in a mortar and pound and grind with a pestle until everything is broken down – don’t turn it into a paste, leave everything lumpy but bruised. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, smash with a mallet or the bottom of a sturdy bottle.
3 Lay fish in a shallow ovenproof dish lined with baking (parchment) paper. Rub aromatics over both sides of fish, and smear some of the mixture in the cavity. Drizzle with olive oil.
4 Bake the fish for 15-20 minutes in an oven preheated to 200°C (400°F) – just use a regular ‘bake’ programme, nothing fancy like fanbake. See notes below for judging when the fish is cooked. If using tomatoes, add them to the roasting dish for the final 7 or so minutes of cooking.
5 Either transfer fish to a serving platter, or serve from the roasting tin. Fish is at its most succulent when it is just cooked. It will continue to cook with residual heat, so the trick is to have everyone ready and waiting so you can enjoy the fish at its succulent best.
How to tell if the fish is cooked
The trick to cooking fish, is not to overcook it. In this recipe I’m using a small fish so it doesn’t need turning during cooking. Look for signs like the eye turning cloudy, then white – that’s as good an indication as anything that a fish is cooked (for a large fish, this is still a good guide providing you turn the fish over during cooking). Alternatively, poke around the thickest part of the flesh with the point of a sharp knife. The flesh is ready when it has just the merest tinge of pink by the bone (residual heat will finish it off as you dish it).
How to remove the fish from the bones on a baby snapper
Some people do not like fish skin. If that’s you, simply slide it off with a knife. To take the flesh off the bone, use a small sharp knife and cut alongside one side of the fish, slightly lifting the flesh as you go to ensure it is freeing itself from the bone. Next, loosen flesh from around the head, and then from the other side of the fish, scraping the knife against the bone to ensure you don’t leave flesh behind. Then loosen it from the tail. Use a fish slice or spatula to carefully lift off the fish, and transfer it to a plate. Free the bone from the remaining fish, lift it up and twist it slightly, and there’s your second side of succulent fish flesh. Don’t forget the gorgeous pockets of flesh in the cheeks! This is a better method than flipping the fish over to get at the other side of the flesh as it often collapses while you turn it.