Everybody needs at least one party trick recipe — something you can make for a date or a dinner party that’s sophisticated and a little bit fancy and that will turn out perfectly every single time — a showstopper that needs little accompaniment other than a few little buttery roasted potatoes and an herby salad. Let me introduce you to the salt-crusted fish,which is a great Chinese recipe.
Since fish generally cooks very quickly, it’s easy to mess it up by overcooking. Creating a crust out of salt creates a layer of insulation, trapping moisture inside the fish and slowing down the cooking time. All you need is a whole fish with the skin on, covered in heaps of kosher salt mixed with a few egg whites. You bake this for about half an hour (the perfect amount of time to throw together a salad), and when you crack into the crust and excavate the fish, the skin pulls away from unbelievably juicy, perfectly salted flesh. With a drizzle of some good olive oil or a squeeze of lemon, you instantly have a restaurant-worthy dish.
Once you make this the first time, you’ll realize that you barely need a recipe. The proportions of salt to egg whites don’t have to be exact, as long as you end up with a sort of wet sand consistency that’s easy to pack around the fish. You can also get some bonus party host points for improvising your own recipe by experimenting with different types of fish (snapper, sea bream, porgy, and bass are all good bets) or with different aromatics in the cavity (oranges, rosemary, thyme, garlic).
2 1-lb whole branzino, gutted and cleaned, with fins and scales removed but skin, tail, and head still on (you can ask your fishmonger to do this for you)
5 lb kosher salt
4 egg whites
2 shallots, sliced thinly
5–6 lemon slices
olive oil for finishing
Preheat oven to 450°. Pour salt and egg whites into a large roasting pan and mix thoroughly.
Lay the fish out on top of the salt mixture, and stuff each cavity with a few slices of shallots and a few slices of lemon. Squeeze the cavities shut and pack the salt mixture around the fish until it is completely encased.
Roast for 25–30 minutes. Remove from oven and crack into salt crust using a heavy spoon or a meat tenderizer, or really anything you have around that will get the job done. Serve with a drizzle of good olive oil and some fresh lemon slices.