Recipe: Whole Baked Fish with a Mellow Marinade
You know that feeling, when you’ve cooked a dish, tasted it, and found it good but not great? There’s something flat about it, or there’s a sharp note that isn’t working, or maybe there’s an unintegrated taste that throws the flavor out of balance. In short, it needs a little help. Most cooks have flavoring secrets that help fine-tune their cooking. Some finish a flat dish with a splash of good vinegar, and a sharp one with a few tablespoons of butter. I tend to use either lemon zest or nutmeg for that kind of balancing.
When I want to tame a vinaigrette, especially if I’m using it on a seafood salad, where I don’t want anything too sharp that might compete with the delicate sea flavors, I sometimes add a few scrapings of nutmeg, which seems to bring the oil and vinegar together in a mellower bond. A slightly sharp tomato sauce can be softened by a hint of nutmeg (I believe this is the reason sauces flavored with pancetta, which is usually seasoned with nutmeg, always taste so lush). I also include a few scrapings to soften the sharp edges of cooked escarole or broccoli rabe. If the wine I’ve added to a fish stew tastes a little obvious, I’ll sometimes add a pinch of nutmeg to cut its acidity. Nutmeg underscores the sweetness in lobster or shrimp, and one of my favorite ways to cook calamari is a slow braise with white wine, tomato, and pinches of both nutmeg and cinnamon. I also add a pinch of nutmeg to tapenade and to roasted red peppers, just to introduce warmth. When I make spaghetti dressed with anchovies and olive oil and the result is too assertive, a few gratings of fresh nutmeg will usually bring it into balance.
Lemon zest is nutmeg’s counterpart. I’ll grate some into a finished meat stew, especially pork or duck, to cut its richness, especially if I’ve added a heavy stock and it weighs down the sauce. When I make traditional Southern Italian pork sausages with roasted peppers, I often grate lemon (and sometimes orange) zest over the dish just before bringing it to the table; the zest brightens it up, cutting the fattiness. And lemon zest is a helpful acidic ingredient to include in a fish marinade, where lemon juice might whiten or cook the fish’s surface, making it mushy. You don’t want excess liquid in a marinade when you plan on sautéing or grilling or the fish may steam instead of browning. Try including lemon zest in vegetable and ricotta fillings for ravioli or torts where you feel the creaminess needs a little reining in. I’ve never been a big fan of cream sauces, but I occasionally make one for a first-course pasta that contains hints of both lemon zest and nutmeg, expanding the sweet cream in both directions to include warm and sharp notes. I use lemon zest in pasta e fagiole to break through the sea of starch, making the dish feel contemporary.
Whole Baked Fish with a Mellow Marinade
Here’s an instance where I use nutmeg and lemon zest in the same dish, adding both warm and sharp tones.
1 approximately 2-pound whole sea bass or red snapper, scaled and gutted but with the head left on
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
The zest from 2 lemons (without any white pith), plus the juice from 1 lemon
3 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed
About 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly grated black pepper
1/2 cup sweet white wine (a Moscato is perfect)
A large handful of basil leaves, cut into thin strips
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Place the fish in a low-sided baking dish.
In a small bowl, mix together the olive oil, lemon zest, garlic cloves, nutmeg, and black pepper. Pour the mixture over the fish, and move the fish around in it until it is well coated inside and out.
Heat the oven to 425 degrees. While it is heating let the fish sit at room temperature to absorb the marinade, about 20 minutes (you can marinate it and then refrigerate it for a few hours before cooking if you want).
When you’re ready to bake the fish, season it all over with salt. Tuck the garlic cloves from the marinade inside the fish’s cavity, and pour the wine and the lemon juice around the fish.
Bake the fish without turning it until it is just tender, about 20 minutes. (Check by poking a knife into the backbone and gently separating the flesh from the bone; it will be white and just starting to flake when cooked.) If the wine evaporates during cooking, add a splash more, or a little water.
Transfer the fish to a warmed serving platter. Scatter on the basil. Add the butter to the baking dish and stir it into the cooking liquid. Pour the sauce over the fish. Fillet the fish and spoon a little sauce over each serving.