Baked Whole Fish with Rosemary, Olive Oil, and Lemon

Fish, like meat or poultry, has more flavor when it is cooked on the bone. But many people are daunted by the prospect of cooking a whole fish because they have no idea how to fillet it. In fact, if you wait to fillet your fish until after it’s cooked, it’s a snap – because at that point the flesh is almost ready to fall off the bone. This is one of those fun entrées that you can set up in no time at all, throw into the oven, and forget about while you read a magazine.

Makes 4 servings
Hands-on time: 15 minutes
Total preparation time: 40 to 45 minutes for a 1 1/2-pound fish; 45 to 50 for a 2-pound fish.

Two 1 1/2- to 2-pound whole fish such as red snapper, gutted, fins removed, and scaled (get your fishmonger to do this for you)
8 large sprigs rinsed and dried fresh rosemary
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 teaspoons grated lemon zest
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 whole lemons, each cut into 8 wedges
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, optional

Remove the fish from the refrigerator 10 minutes before baking. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Remove enough leaves from the rosemary to measure about 3 tablespoons; chop them. For the marinade, combine half the chopped rosemary, 1/2 cup oil, and 2 teaspoons of the lemon zest. Rinse the fish inside and out and pat dry with paper towels. Sprinkle some salt and black pepper inside the cavity and over the surface of the fish. Stuff the cavity of each fish with 6 lemon wedges and the remaining rosemary sprigs. Arrange both fish in a shallow baking dish in one layer and pour the marinade over them, making sure they are coated all over.

Bake the fish in the center of the oven for 15 to 18 minutes until the meat just begins to separate from the backbone. Let it rest, covered loosely with aluminum foil, for 5 minutes before filleting.

Meanwhile, combine the remaining 1/4 cup oil, remaining half of the chopped rosemary, 1 teaspoon lemon zest, and the pepper flakes, if using, in a small saucepan; heat over high heat just until hot.

To fillet the fish, peel off the top skin. Run a small sharp knife (such as a paring or boning knife) down the backbone of the fish and continue toward the belly, making sure that the knife is on top of the rib bones, until you have separated the fillet from the fish. To reach the second fillet, gently lift up the central bones, which are now exposed (they will come up in one piece), and remove the second fillet. Repeat with the second fish. Transfer a fillet to each of four plates. Divide the hot oil over the fillets and garnish each serving with one of the remaining lemon wedges.

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