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IMG_6184For me, the California Sheephead has mostly just been my nemesis fish.  A fish worthy of respect for its fight and often being a jackpot winner, but for whatever reason has been a problem for me catching year after year (thanks again to Capt. TJ Schlick of the Eldorado.  Take advantage of Capt. TJ’s deal and get one of these great fish!).

In terms of eating, I’ve heard people say it tastes like crab.  Based on the fish’s penchant for eating crustaceans…crab, lobster etc., it makes sense, but I haven’t tasted it.  When I’ve cooked it, the results were less than spectacular.  The meat is very delicate and will not stand up to your typical pan frying.  It falls apart, so the fish has not only frustrated me on the water, but in the kitchen as well.

No more…my friend Claire Shen prepared this amazing dish for Juliana and I and it rocked!  Here’s how she did it…

Salt Crusted Sheephead

Ingredients

Salt – lots of salt.  I estimated that gutted and gilled, this fish was about 6 lbs.  Claire used almost 3 full cannisters of regular table salt.  Don’t let this scare you

Kaffir lime leavesEgg whites

Water

Seasonings: Herbs de provence, Kaffir lime leaves, lemon

Kaffir limes are a fruit native to Asia.  The leaves are a popular ingredient in Thai cooking.

Making The Salt Crust

I was unfamiliar with this technique, but it’s perfect for sheephead.  The best way to cook this fish is steaming and the salt crust creates a cooking vessel around the fish that steams it in its own juices.  Don’t get hung up on measuring.  For this fish, Claire used almost 3 full cannisters of salt and 3 egg whites.  Mix it all in a large mixing bowl.  Add water.  When she was mixing it together, Claire added a bit of the herbs de provence into the mixture.  You are looking for the consistency of damp sand.  Think wet enough to make a sand castle, but not so wet that it falls down.  When it was ready, Claire took a large cookie pan (with a lip) and built about a 1/2 inch base for the fish to rest on.

Prepping The Fish

Gut, gill and scale the fish.  Rest the fish on top of the salt crust base.  Cut the top fin out…if you leave it on, it will rise up and crack the crust.  In the stomach cavity, add lemon slices, the kaffir lime leaves and herbs de provence.  Tuck the bottom flap from the stomach cavity into the top and kind of roll the top flap over and around the bottom flap to seal off the cavity from the salt crust you will build around it.  Add a bit more herbs de provence on top of the fish.  While you are doing this step, get the oven started at a temp of 400F.  Finish crusting over the rest of the fish.

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Cooking & Presentation

Once the crust is built up around the fish, put it in the preheated oven.  Because we estimated the prepared fish at 6 lbs., Claire set a timer for 30 minutes (5 min/lb).  Once it is done, take it out and let sit for 10 minutes.  After cooling, crack the crust and discard the hardened salt pieces.  Once the fish was exposed, Claire made a cuts behind the gill plate by the tail, and around the outer edge.  She then peeled off the skin to reveal the succulent flesh of the fish.  She served us plates of angel hair pasta, and steamed broccoli.  We forked out chunks of fish, added it to the pasta and broccoli, and finished with a squeeze of lemon.  I paired it with a bottle of 2012 Chateau Ste. Michelle chardonnay which turned out to be a great pick.  Enjoy!

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