Salt Crust Pompano
I've been wanting to try a salt-crust meal for a few years now. Iron Chef (the original Japanese version) used the technique often, and several of my latest cookbooks mentioned the technique, but at 9am this morning as I was keeping my 14 month old daughter from banging a toy into my 4 month old son's soft-spot, Tyler Florence was doing a salt-crust steak on the Food Network, and it got me salivating. So I made up my mind to try it with whatever fresh fish I could find.
I hit the local seafood shop. There was a wonderful sign stuck in the ice in the display case: "Whole Yellowtail Snapper", but there was just empty ice chips. I asked if they had any more yellowtail, and after a few loud, roof-raising shouts into the back, echoing back to the display, it was determined that they were, alas, sold out of yellowtail. Yellowtail is my favorite snapper, in my mind it is nearly 1000% better than the ubiquitous (and frequently mis-labeled) American Red Snapper. But again, alas and alack.
However, there was locally caught fresh and whole pompano, which isn't necessarily in the same league as yellowtail snapper, but it is more rare as it's a seasonal fish (and we are right in the middle of season here in February in the central Florida Atlantic coast), so I grabbed one of those, $15 for just under 2 pounds, whole and un-gutted.
After the fish store, I hit the local Latin produce mart, where most of the staff speaks only Spanish, yet the customers range from the local Latin community to restaurant owners to Asians to Muslims, all looking for quality produce. It's as melting-pot as you can get in this coastal town. I picked up fresh cilantro, key limes, banana leaves, and onions for under $5.
It was indeed my first attempt, and I don't think I fully did what I wanted, but it was quite tasty, and I learned enough from this attempt to improve.
Fortunately, Christey and I were in the mood to document. As usual, I don't really like tossing out a complete recipe as much as describing technique. So, here we go:
Pompano doesn't have as much of a body cavity as, say, salmon or grouper or snapper...or really most fish. The pompano body cavity is really quite small. But, I cut up roma tomatoes (seeded), key limes, cilantro, thyme, garlic, and shallots, tossed them with olive oil and rice vinegar, kosher salt, pepper, etc, and here it is:
For the salt-crust, whip up the egg whites: Soft peaks is what I'm shooting for...
Added about a pound of kosher salt, and regular table salt. I thought I actually had a bunch of kosher salt, like 5 pounds worth, but somehow I misplaced it (I think it accidentally got tossed out in a pantry-cleaning). So, I did about a pound of each, and in retrospect, I needed another couple pounds more than what I had to do this the authentic way. But, you improvise with what you have, I guess.
Add some chopped cilantro and thyme:
Stuff the fish with the herb/tomato/garlic/etc mixture and coat each side with olive oil:
Put on sheet-pan over banana leaves, then put a banana leaf on top and cover with salt/egg-white/herb mixture:
Cook in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for 30-45 minutes (this is a 1.5 pound fish, uncleaned. Bigger fish need more time...)
Right before the fish is done, I chopped more tomato, cilantro, and cut a couple more key limes and a lemon in half to juice later...
When the fish was done, I split the salt crust:
And I took the herbs and stuff from inside the body cavity and pulsed it a few times in the food processor, then strained it into a saucepan with olive oil, the chopped herbs, and a half-cup of shrimp stock:
The idea is that the herbs cooked in the fish imparted flavor to the fish, but the fish also put some flavor into the mixture, which works well in the sauce.
Toss in tomatoes at the last minute:
The fish should fall right off the bones, so remove the fillet, place it skin-down on the plate, cover with sauce, garnish with a sprig of cilantro, sliced key-limes, strips of banana leaves, and there you go:
Things I would have changed: I needed double the salt. Nothing wrong with the head and tail out of the crust, but there should have been a huge dome. But, I thought I had more than I did. Also, I think I was wrong putting the banana leaf on the top, too -- the salt should have gone directly over the fish, and then removed later. I would have rather had a fish with a larger body cavity, a snapper ideally, but really the pompano tasted really good -- closer to mahi than anything else.
Overall, though, I was happy with this as a first attempt. It was pretty tasty. The final pics of plating didn't do it justice. It's messy removing fillets from a whole-cooked fish, but it's supposed to be that way.
Christey and I always have an interesting dynamic photographing my recipes. I'm always, like: "This is an important step in the recipe", and yet, it doesn't look all that interesting in a photographic sense. On the other hand, chopping shallots is full of interesting kinetic motion, but anyone can learn to semi-professionally rough-cut a shallot in about 2 hours. It's a complimentary relationship, but sometimes 90-degrees off of each other's mindset, which is what I find so fascinating. My cooking and her photography are both art, but the different viewpoints challenge both of us, which is why I like doing these kinds of posts so much.