As a kid growing up in Coastal Southern California, I ate a lot of seafood, but my dad generally filleted whatever fish he caught. It wasn't until I was out on my own that I came to really love and appreciate the act of grilling and eating whole fish, cracking through that crispy skin and picking every last morsel of meat off the bones, making it feel both simple and celebratory at the same time. It's a meal made to be shared, family-style, passing platters and sharing stories.
Now, while cooking whole fish may sound intimidating, the fact is that it is actually very forgiving, making it an excellent dish for entertaining, even if you are a relatively unexperienced cook. Cooking fish (or any meat, for that matter) on the bone actually prevents the flesh from cooking too quickly because the bones do not heat up as rapidly as the flesh. This makes it possible for you to get the skin nice and crispy without overcooking the meat. Yes, you (and your guests) will need to watch for bones, but you'll be well-rewarded by that juicy flesh and crackling skin.
In the recipe that follows, I've seasoned both my whole fish as well as the accompanying salad with my California Seaside Spice Blend, which is an edible ode to my home and is inspired by the way Coastal Southern California smells after a winter rain or on a foggy morning, the air heavy with the scent of sage, fennel, rosemary, bay, citrus, and, of course, the ocean. You may not be from around here, but I hope this dish makes you feel like you've arrived home.
Let's get cooking, shall we?
Grilled Whole Fish with Citrus and Fennel Salad
1 (2.5- to 3-lb) whole fish (such as snapper, rock cod, black seabass, or branzino), cleaned
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon California Seaside Spice Blend, divided
1/4 cup vegetable or grapeseed oil
1 medium fennel bulb
1 small shallot
3 large oranges
Juice from 1 lemon
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Rinse fish with cold water and pat dry with paper towels. With a sharp knife, make slashes diagonally along the body of the fish every couple of inches on both sides, cutting all the way down to the bones. Season fish inside and out with salt and then cover with 2 tablespoons of California Seaside Spice Blend. Allow to sit at room temperature 20 minutes.
While the fish is resting, place a large cast iron griddle (aka a plancha) on your grill and preheat grill to medium-high heat. If you do not have a griddle, you can grill the fish directly on the grill grates. Just be sure to clean and oil the grates well so that the fish doesn't stick.
Meanwhile, trim fronds and stalks from fennel bulbs, setting aside several small fronds for garnish. Cut fennel in half lengthwise and cut out core. Thinly slice cored fennel and place in a medium mixing bowl. Peel and thinly slice shallot and add to the bowl with the fennel.
Cut one orange in half and set it aside. Cut the top and bottom from the other two oranges so that they sit upright on their own. Trim the peel and pith from them so that you just see the juicy flesh. Slice into thin rings and add to the bowl with the fennel and shallot. Add the lemon juice to the bowl, along with the remaining teaspoon of California Seaside Spice Blend. Toss gently to mix. Taste and add more California Seaside Spice Blend, if desired. Toss again and top with fennel fronds.
Drizzle both sides of fish with vegetable or grapeseed oil to coat. Drizzle some oil on the hot griddle (or generously oil the grill grate) and allow to heat to just smoking. Cook fish undisturbed, 7-8 minutes. Lift up slightly from one edge to see if skin is puffed and lightly charred and easily releases. If not quite ready, leave alone for another minute or so and try again. Once it is ready, gently slide 2 large metal spatulas underneath and turn over.
Grill fish until the other side is lightly charred and skin is puffed, 7-10 minutes, depending on the size of the fish. Place the two orange halves you set aside earlier cut side down on the griddle and cook until charred. Transfer the fish and charred orange halves to a platter and serve with Citrus and Fennel Salad.
Suggested Wine Pairing: A bright yet creamy California Chardonnay, such as this one from Babock Vineyards in Santa Barbara is a perfect compliment to this meal (as evidenced by the following photo).