It started with a conversation to alleviate the drudgery of prep work in the kitchen of San Domenico NY many years ago. I was filleting some black bass, methodically removing pin bones, careful not to stick myself with the spiky fins (as I'd done before, which caused my entire hand to blow up to twice its size and sent me to an emergency doctor. Fun!) When doing prep work in the kitchen, I sometimes asked one of the dishwashers to help me, because they were friendly and fun and they were interested in cooking professionally some day. My attitude was always "the more the merrier" when in came to kitchen work. So I started chatting with Mbulli, the Ghanaian dishwasher who was helping me with my task. And we started discussing fishing, and fish preparation. So I asked him how he might prepare a whole fish like the sea bass we were working on that day -- or any fish he might have at home in Ghana -- and he told me, very simply. "I would make it with chilies, and citrus like orange, and cilantro." And that stuck with me. I always thought that idea sounded fantastically refreshing, and I vowed to myself to make that preparation one day.
A decade and a half later, on a recent trip to see my family in south Florida, I was out fishing with my younger brother -- quite an accomplished recreational fisherman -- on his new boat, along with his fishing buddy James. We went out late afternoon in the early summer, as the sun cast a pinkish glow on the water and the humidity broke just enough to make the July air tolerable.
And though the catch wasn't as bountiful as we might have hoped, it did yield us a gaggle of very delicious, fresh fish, including three decent-sized yellowtail snappers -- a local fish I adore. Normally, we'd take the fish home and either make a ceviche or sushi out of it, if the particular fish was best enjoyed raw. Or, we'd cook it either simply fried or pan sauteed with accompanying veggie sides. But on this occasion, I was headed back to New York the following day, and the fish would keep if I carried them back on ice in a cooler...which is exactly what I did. My brother and his friend had been patient with me when seasickness relegated me to a beanbag on board, sniffing mint to quell my nausea: they caught the fish and insisted I take the catch. So I told them that the yellowtail were destined for a preparation about which I'd been daydreaming since that afternoon in the San Domenico kitchen. I would invite some friends over and attempt to make Ghanaian-inspired yellowtail snapper.
Back in my Manhattan kitchen, I set to making a dinner for a hot New York City summer night (perfectly authentic to the climate in which this dish might be consumed)! I paired the fish, roasted whole quite simply with salt and pepper and a little oil, with a sauce I made on the side. The ingredients are simple: orange, jalapeno and scotch bonnet chiles, garlic, shallot, and cilantro. I added a splash of vinegar and lime juice and that's pretty much it. I paired it with coconut rice, and some balsamic-honey roasted carrots, and laid the fish on some watercress. It was spicy, and delicious, and has now officially become a part of my fresh fish repertoire. Thank you, Mbulli!
GHANAIAN-INSPIRED YELLOWTAIL SNAPPER
Remember to handle the chile peppers with gloves on, to avoid burning face, eyes, mouth, etc.
2-3 small whole yellowtail snappers, approx 3-5 pounds, gutted, scaled, and cleaned
5 oranges, cut into supremed segments
4 cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 scotch bonnet chile, seeded and veined, and sliced finely
1 jalapeno pepper (or other mild chile pepper), sliced finely
1 large shallot, finely minced
1 lime: zest and juice
2 TBSP. white balsamic or red wine vinegar
- In a cast iron skillet or on a roasting pan lined with parchment paper -- either one lined with a shmear of canola oil -- place the whole fishes, which have been seasoned with salt and pepper to taste. (You can also stuff the bellies with fresh herbs like parsley and cilantro, as well as slices of citrus, if desired). If cooking in the skillet, sear fish on one side over medium-high heat, for about 5 minutes, and then flip them and place into a 325 degree oven for another 20-25 minutes. If placing directly on a roasting pan, place into that same oven but add 5-10 minutes of cooking time.
- Meanwhile, In a saute pan, place all the remaining ingredients together and simmer over medium-low heat until the flavors begin to meld, about 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- When the fish is done cooking through, you will be able to easily pull out the pelvic fin -- the little bony fin underneath the fish, in front of its belly. You can also try sticking a small, sharp knife into the thickest part of the fish and if the blade comes out warm to the touch, the fish should be done as well. The entire fish should be firm.
- Serve the fish whole on a platter with the orange-cilantro-chile sauce on the side. This pairs nicely with a rice made with coconut milk, roasted vegetables, and a crisp green like watercress.