I never take for granted how lucky I am to live in the bayou country of Louisiana, and all it takes is one taste of this whole roasted red snapper to understand how delicious life is here. This Cajun recipe represents the beauty of living along the Gulf coast and the endless bounty of our seafood industry. Cooked on the bone with a fresh tomato salsa spiked with lime, and this Whole Roasted Red Snapper bursts with the simple flavors of the waters it came from.
Fishing is a way of life in Louisiana, and while I’ve always fished the inside saltwater marshes for speckled trout, seldom do I venture far offshore. So, when my neighbors Cle’ and Kathy recently invited me and Roxanne to their camp in Grand Isle, I had illusions of culinary grandeur. Cle’ is a seasoned fisherman, and he let me know that its red snapper season. In my recipe book, red snapper is the tastiest of all Gulf finfish and the waters off the tip of Louisiana are teaming with them each summer. So treasured are this species that restrictions demand a 27-day season and a frugal limit of two per person.
Louisiana is blessed. While we may not have white sand beaches, we do have the world’s most fertile fishing grounds thanks to the nutrient rich water flowing down the Mississippi coupled with hundreds of oil rigs that form artificial reefs that hold fish. Fishing the rigs yields anything from smaller redfish, amberjack, and grouper to much larger tuna and marlin.
The crystal clear morning began early aboard Cle’s good friend Joel’s 68-foot tournament fishing boat Cya complete with downriggers and a 3-man crew; Frankie, Oskie and Chris. Watching these guys work in unison, catching bait, baiting hooks and strategically placing 6 lines at a time is nothing short of a full-on stage production. I now have a true appreciation for the art of deep sea tournament-style fishing.
Captain Renee took us out 80 miles to the clearest blue-green water I’ve ever seen. I knew I was headed for prime snapper fishing. And by the afternoon we had a boatload of fun catching a couple of smaller tunas along with a 6-foot hammerhead shark. But, it was the prized red snapper that I had come for.
Roasting a whole, head-on fish is a primal culinary technique and a common Cajun recipe. Seems to me, the simpler and more basic seafood preparation is the better quality of the dish. I believe that generations ago families didn’t have refrigeration that allowed foods to linger; immediate consumption was the goal. The result was fresh out of necessity. This insured that over-fishing was never an issue as fishermen took only what they needed for their family or to sell to their neighbors.
These days, freezers are packed with seafood and the resulting dishes are far less than stellar. No matter how you mask it with heavy sauces, sub par fish will disappoint every time. That’s why whenever I see fresh whole fish, I jump at the chance to bring it to my table as natural as I can.
Red snapper is a basic fish species in nearby Gulf waters. This fish is sought after for its white, flaky meat that has a subtle sweetness. With salt, pepper, sprigs of thyme and a few Meyer lemons from my tree, the only thing left to do for this Whole Roasted Red Snapper is add a bright, light salsa.
- ½ cup salt
- 1 16-ounce package of pappardelle pasta or wide pasta noodles
- ½ cup pesto sauce
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon white pepper
- 4 ripe Roma tomatoes, chopped small
- 1 cup chopped cilantro
- 1 red onion, peeled and finely diced
- 2 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lime juice
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 whole, medium-sized (3 to 4 pounds) red snappers, cleaned and scaled with head and tail on
- 2 large lemons
- 2 sprigs of thyme
- Preheat the oven to 375ºF.
- Add water and salt to a large pot over high heat and bring to the boil. Add the pasta and cook until just al dente. Remove from the heat and strain. Once thoroughly drained of moisture, add the pasta to a large mixing bowl and toss with the pesto sauce, oregano and black pepper. Set aside and keep warm.
- In a mixing bowl, add the tomatoes, cilantro, onion, and lime juice. Mix well and drizzle with olive oil while stirring. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover the salsa and refrigerate.
- Rinse the whole snappers and make sure there are no scales. Pat them dry and lay on a foil-lined baking pan. Slice the lemons into thin rounds and then cut again in half moon shapes. Cut long slits in the skin of the fish and insert slices of lemon in each slit. Push the sprigs of thyme inside the cavity of the fish along with any remaining lemons slices. Sprinkle with salt and a grind of pepper. Cover the pan with foil, sealing the edges tightly. Place the baking pan with the two whole fish into the oven for 30 minutes. Take out of the oven and check for doneness by sticking a sharp knife into the fish to see if flakes easily.
- To assemble, lift the aluminum foil containing the fish out of the baking pan. Spread the pesto-infused pasta over the bottom of the pan and using a spatula, carefully lift the fish and place on top. Pour the lemon and fish juices from the foil over the baked fish and the pasta. Place the pan back into the hot oven and let bake for another 5 minutes just until the fish comes up to temperature.
- For presentation, serve family-style with the pan placed in the center of the table. Spoon some of the fresh salsa on top of the fish and place the rest on the side. A loaf of crusty French bread is all you need for your snapper feast.
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