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Roast Fish: An Elegant, Flavorful and Easy Solution

If you're like me, you know how to cook fish ... sort of. You know how to saute a couple of fillets in butter, maybe with some breadcrumbs or a flour coat. You know how to bake fish on some tin foil in the oven. Maybe you've grappled a few times with falling-apart fish cakes in a skillet. And you enjoy fried fish, as long as someone else is doing the frying.

But what about roasting fish? I can hear you flipping through the Rolodex of your culinary memory (under "R"). Roast chicken? Check. Roast turkey? Check. Roast potatoes? Check. Roast fish? Nope.

It almost seems perverse to take a fish, that wateriest of creatures, from its ocean home and subject it to the pummeling heat blast of a 450-degree oven. But it's a magical punishment, like that which turns coal into diamonds. That dry, powerful heat concentrates the fish's flavor while rapidly cooking the interior to an even, pearlescent finish. For dense cuts of fish like monkfish or salmon, or whole smaller fish, it's an elegant solution.

No watery puddle in the pan, like you have when you bake at a lower heat. No charred exterior sticking to a fishy skillet.

Most cookbooks don't seem to distinguish between "baking" and "roasting." To me, it's roasting if it happens at above 400 degrees, without added liquid other than oil. And if you sear it first in an oven-proof pan before putting it in the oven? That's pan-roasting, which is another word for "gorgeous golden-brown crust."

The first roasted fish I ever fell for was a pan-roasted monkfish with ginger, leeks and chanterelles that I spotted in Gourmet magazine. It wasn't the smartest choice for an impecunious twentysomething. I busted my budget on the monkfish and the port for the reduction, and the chanterelles must have been $16.95 per quarter-pound. I still cringe thinking about it. But what pleasure for the price. To this day, pan roasting remains my favorite way of cooking monkfish.

There are probably innumerable ways to roast a fish, but I stick with three:

1. Pan roasting: The best way by far to make the most of a flavorful, dense fillet of fish such as monkfish, salmon or Arctic char. Sear the fillet skin side up in a heavy, oven-proof pan (cast-iron works well). Then flip the fillet over and slide the pan into a 450-degree oven for 7 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillet. When you preheat the oven, put the pan in it and preheat it, too — that way, when you sear the fish, the pan will be blazing hot and give you a gilded crust without any sticking.

2. Roasting in salt: Great for whole fish, and lots of fun. You make a wet salt crust with one-third of a box of kosher salt and some egg whites and slather it over and under a whole fish. It's like building sandcastles, only edible. Then you roast the whole thing for half an hour. You smack the crust with a big spoon — CRACK!! — and the crust falls off in shards. Voila! One moist, sweet-fleshed fish to divvy up and roll in butter sauce.

3. Naked roasting: If you can't be bothered with a salt crust, you can just start with roasting a bed of vegetables — say, onions or potatoes or fennel. Halfway through, drop the oiled and seasoned fish, whether whole or in thick fillets, on top and pop it in the oven for a similar effect. It's slightly less moist and sweet, but still densely flavorful.

At its best, a roasted fish has a tender, moist interior that comes away on the fork in thick, smooth chunks. I don't know exactly why, but it's harder to overcook a roasted fish than a sauteed one. Maybe it's because 400-degree air is a strong but gentle heat. It cooks more slowly and evenly than a blazing, 700-degree metal pan surface. Roasting also seems to concentrate the fish's natural, delicate flavor. That briny, almost nutty, sweetness is something completely apart from the fishy smell of a fried-seafood shack, or even the salt and pepper you might have used for seasoning.

For many people, eating fish at all has become something of an indulgence (though, paradoxically, one that's good for you). We worry about overfishing and mercury contamination. Or, on a more practical level, we can't cope with the high price and perishability of fish.

The beauty of roasting is that it transforms fish into an everyday luxury, freeing cooks to be grateful once again for what we've always loved about fish. Thanks, fish, for being easy enough to cook on a week night. Thanks, fish, for being the healthiest animal protein on the planet. Thanks for your fabulous omega-3 fatty acids. Thanks for being delicious.

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T. Susan Chang
T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.