Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pan Fried Whole Golden Pompano

* We linked this post at Simple Lives Thursday at GNOWFGLINS and Fight Back Friday at Food Renegade *

I recall twice now, that I've been dining at an Asian restaurant to see some of the kitchen staff come out and sit down to eat their own lunch or dinner.  Both times they had whole fish on their plates!  I thought to myself, "how on Earth can they stand to have their food starring up at them?" It was pretty creepy to me at the time, but I was young and naive regarding all the wonderful benefits of preparing a fish whole.

Well, now I know those benefits and I'd like to share them with you as well as my adventure in cooking my first whole fish. 

It's part of American culture to be turned off by meat that is presented in its entirety.  We somehow comfort ourselves from the fact that we are eating flesh when it's served to us in nice little cuts that show no signs of life (such as bones, skin, head, etc).  In fact, a lot of our meats don't even resemble flesh anymore.  It is often deboned, ground, processed, combined with filler, breaded, or overcooked to oblivion.  I'm not saying any of this is wrong (except maybe the processed part if we're talking about chemicals, injecting fake fats, etc.  I also think it's outrageous to overcook meat).  I'm just saying that we don't often think about meat as being part of the animal anymore.  It's no coincidence that when we don't think of our meat as being part of an animal we tend to not care about the life of the animal before it reaches our plate. And when we become apathetic to the life of the animal we end up sacrificing our own health (not to mention we are probably compromising on our values and ethics). Animals that are mistreated, unnaturally fattened, unnaturally fed, and medicated will not provide the same nutritional value and thus our health can suffer.

So lets remember when we eat our meat that it was once an animal. And once we remind ourselves of the animal lets take an interest in the life of that animal.   With this awareness it's a win-win for both the animals and our own bodies. 

I guess I should get back on topic regarding this fish dish I made.  Here's a list of some of the benefits of preparing a fish whole.
  1. Buying it whole will make it easier to determine freshness
  2. It tastes better
    1. Flavors from the bones and skin are cooked into the flesh
    2. The skin helps to retain the flavor of what the fish is cooking in
  3. It's healthier
    1. Essential nutrients are contained within the bones, skin, and especially the head
  4. Less wasteful (there's good meat in the head!). Save everything for fish stock!
  5. Encourages mindful eating (slow down, savor, and appreciation)
Obviously, you want to buy fish as fresh as possible.  I called my local market and found out what days they received their stock of fish and made sure to come on one of those days. Here are some ways to determine freshness and with a whole fish you have the advantage of additional clues.
  1. Fresh fish should not smell fishy.  They will have that briny smell of the sea, but actual fishiness is not a good thing.
  2. The fish should be resilient to poking it.  Look for a poke to spring back and not leave a depression.
  3. Eyes should be clear (not cloudy) and not sunken.
  4. Gills should be red for best quality.  Pink is acceptable and be sure to avoid brown.
  5. Skin should feel wet and cold, but not sticky or slimy. 
Now, time for the recipe I used.

Pan Fried Whole Golden Pompano
Served with sauteed spinach, Israeli (pearl) couscous, and herb mushroom butter

Serves 1
  • 1 whole golden pompano (1 - 1.5 lbs)
  • 1/2 C pastured unsalted butter
  • 2 Tbl raw milk
  • sea salt and fresh ground pepper to cover
  • 1 C unbleached all purpose flower
  • lemon wedges and parsley for garnish
Here's a photo of my beautify pompano.  I had them clean the scales and remove the guts, but everything else is going on my plate : ) 

I cooked the fish in clarified butter, also referred to as ghee.  Clarifying butter is the process of removing the milk solids and water in the butter, leaving only the pure butter fat. Regular butter will eventually burn at high heat, but pure butter fat will not as easily.  This is ideal for pan frying meat on high heat. Also ghee will have this nice nutiness flavor to it, enhancing the taste of whatever is cooked in it. You can buy ghee, but I decided to make my own.

Making Clarified Butter (Ghee)
Melt the 1/2  C butter (you can make a bigger batch of this of course) in a pot on medium heat.  Do not stir.  The butter will begin to foam at the top as the water in the butter is evaporated off. You can skim the foam off if you want to help see the milk solids (little granules) that will be at the bottom.  Your ghee is done when there is no longer foam at the top, you have a beautiful golden liquid, and you see milk solids at the bottom that are golden brown.  Quickly pour the liquid into a bowl, leaving the milk solids in the pot.  It may help to pour this through cheese cloth, or something similar, to make sure no milk solids make it into your ghee.

For a more detailed explanation of this process with lots of pictures you can visit the Not Dabbling in Normal website.

Now it's time to prep the fish.  Pat the fish dry and remove any blood that may still be on it.  Then pour half the milk over one side. Cover liberally with sea salt and fresh ground pepper.  Turn the fish over and repeat on the other side.  Roll the fish repeatedly in flour to cover it well.  Then set the fish aside (on a rack is best) to dry for 10 minutes.

While my fish was drying I started my Israeli (pearl) couscous.  A few minutes before the 10 minutes is up pour your ghee into a hot cast iron pan on medium-high heat. You need to make sure the ghee is nice and hot before placing the fish in the pan.  Fry the fish on one side for about 3 minutes or until golden brown. Turn the fish over and fry the other side for 3 minutes or until golden brown.  Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook the fish an additional 2-3 minutes on each side.   During the final frying of my fish, I sauteed my spinach in unfiltered extra virgin olive oil and garlic. 

Remove the fish from the pan and place on a plate or rack for 5 minutes to let it drain some of the oil. 

I also made a herb mushroom butter to serve with my fish.  I adapted it from a recipe at Nourished Traditions.  I don't know the first thing about wild mushrooms so I bough some oyster mushrooms for my butter. While my fish was cooling and draining I melted a tablespoon of this yummy butter to pour over my fish once plated. 

The Results
I was happy with the results of my fish.  The meat was extremely moist, tender, and flavorful.  However, I need some practice eating a whole fish.  The idea is to fillet one side by cutting just from underneath the gills, along the backbone, and out the tail.  You then remove the fillet to expose the backbone which you should easily be able to remove.  This will expose the fillet of meat on the other side.  I probably need a sharper knife, as I mutilated my fish pretty good and did not end up with a pretty fillet by any stretch of the imagination.  I made a mess of things and had to eat this with my hands basically : )

Part of the adventure of eating a fish whole is finding all the different pockets of meat.  For example, I discovered a lot of good meat in the head area of my fish-- behind the cheeks and under the chin.

What I didn't like about this meal, was that my kitchen looked like it had been hit by a tornado.  I made two butter dishes (mushroom butter and the ghee) which meant oily, sticky pots and bowls everywhere.  I also had flour all over the counters and floors and all my counter space was taken up by dirty dishes.  I found this ridiculous because I was cooking for one person!  I have to be honest.  The state of my kitchen made me pretty grumpy by the time I got to sit down and eat my meal.  I'm kind of a neat freak in that way.  Next time, I'm going to have my butter made ahead of time-- at least the day before.  I'm going to have my flour in a rimmed cookie sheet or casserole dish instead of a plate.  I did not enjoy the hour and a half it took me to restore the kitchen : ( 

But I'm glad I got my experience of cooking and eating a whole fish.  I want my next whole fish experience to be along the river.  I plan on taking a cast iron skillet, grate, ghee, and flour with me to a trip to the mountains.  The fish will go straight from the water to the fire.  It can't get an fresher than that.  Let's just be sure to actually catch some trout next time Dad : )


  1. I used to work as a part-time waitress in a 5 star hotel and had to serve at chinese wedding banquets. we had to debone the fish for the guests and still have the fish in one piece. haha! that was a horror.

  2. Looks scrumptious! Just made pompano for the first time today. I can't have gluten (flour), so I just stuffed the belly with a handful of ginger slivers and cilantro, sprinkled with sake, rubbed with salt all over & sprayed with homemade chili oil. Went straight from the cutting board to the grill so no mess too :) Didn't realize how yummy of a fish it is! Thanks for the inspiration

    1. I like your idea Yoko thanks. And thanks to the food dudes