A seafood counter clerk had already packaged my salmon filets by the time I noticed the snappers. My eyes swiveled like a flounder’s spying prey. These fish had heads and tails, unusual in my suburban grocery store, several hundred miles from the nearest U.S. coast. And they were fresh, their silvery skins glinting bits of red and yellow as they lay on the crushed ice. It was as if they’d been pulled from salt water only hours before.
Do you get whole fish very often, I asked, pointing to the red snappers. “Nah,” the clerk said. “I think these were ordered by mistake. They just came in today.” He could see I was smitten, and he dangled a line. “They’re incredibly fresh.”
I practically swooned. Still, I was holding the package of filets he’d just passed to me over the glass-front case. Ingredients for a clementine relish to serve with them were in my shopping basket. I needed to resist impulse buying, especially at $16.99 a pound. But I already have salmon, I said weakly; tonight’s dinner is set. My voice trailed off, and I knew my protest was pallid, at best. This wasn’t going to be much of a fight. “These snappers are so fresh, they’ll still be good three days from now,” the clerk declared. I raised an eyebrow. He looked to another white-coated clerk for validation. She regarded him skeptically, pursing her lips. I’m a regular customer of the meat and seafood department, and she had waited on me many times. No need for hyperbole; this catch was nearly landed. The first clerk reverted to his more successful lure. “And we never get them whole,” he said. “This is very unusual.”
That did it. I took the bait. I rarely cook fish, but we’d have it twice in a row this week, and again on Friday in this season of Lent. So what? The clerk, sensing my acquiescence, set the hook. Two, please, I said. He smiled as he pulled the snappers from the ice.
I roasted the snappers the next day, and they were delicious.
Roasted Red Snapper, recipe adapted from instructions available at www.thekitchn.com.
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Line a large, rimmed sheet pan with parchment paper. Lay the cleaned, gutted fish on top. Brush the fish inside and out with olive oil, and season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Season the insides, too, with a little help from somebody willing to turn the pepper mill crank while you hold open the fish. (Or grind your pepper in advance of handling the fish and do it yourself. Do not contaminate your container of salt or your pepper mill with fish-covered fingers.) Stuff the cavity with whole stems of parsley, thin slices of garlic, and very thin slices of a lemon, cut in half.
Roast in the center of the hot oven for about 30 minutes for a 1-or-2-pound fish, until the fish tests done, pouring a little white wine in the pan midway through the cooking time. One of my red snappers was quite a bit larger than the other, so I put the bigger fish in the oven first, and added the smaller one 10 minutes later. The Kitchn suggests aiming for a cooked temperature of 130°F. My fish were a little more done than that and tasted just fine. Serve whole for dramatic effect, or plate just the sliced filets. Look out for bones.