Sealing food in pastry, dough, salt crust or even leaves is an ancient method of cooking. Before pots and pans were invented, people living near geothermal springs would either wrap the food up and cook it in the springs or bury it in the hot earth near the spring. In Iceland today they still bake a type of rye bread in this way, placing it in a tin and burying it near a hot spring until it has steamed. People in areas not lucky enough to be near a hot spring would cook inside animal shells like turtles and shellfish, gourds and bamboo were also used and animal stomachs (think haggis), which are waterproof, could also be used.
Stone cooking was another option in the pre-cookware era. A pit would be dug, rocks would be heated on a fire and added to the pit with water. The food wood be placed on top and covered with leaves, animal skins or earth. At other times the food was wrapped in leaves and layered in the pit with hot rocks which would bake the food. This was the precursor to clambakes and Hawaiian luaus. In China, legend goes that a beggar stole a chicken from a farmer and buried it to hide it. When night fell, he found his chicken and placed it, still covered in mud, directly on a fire to cook. He discovered the chicken was perfectly cooked and became famous selling this dish. These types of cooking methods persist despite easier ways of preparing food. This is not only because it seals in the juices and infuses the meat in the flavours of the crust, but also the act of unsealing the food releases the most delicious smell while the dramatic presentation wows guests.
Branzino al sale (salt baked seabass)
You can use most types of fish for this, big and small, just adjust the salt and the baking time. The most traditional fish used in Italy are dentex, gilthead bream, striped red mullet, plaice, and sole. The skin of the fish is not used in this case so is peeled off along with the salt casing. The general ratio is 1 kilo of fish to 1.5 kilos of salt, so adjust accordingly. The baking time is 10 minutes for every 2 cm of thickness of the fish. For step-by-step illustrated instructions, see here.
1.5 kilos coarse grain sea salt
2 egg whites
1 kilo sea bass, gutted and washed well, can be scaled or not (can use most fish but I prefer to not use flat fish)
Aromatics (optional) such as sliced lemon, lemon zest, fennel fronds, fennel seeds, and herbs such as basil, parsley, or dill
60 mls extra-virgin olive oil
Heat the oven to 220C.
Mix the salt with the egg white. If you like you can add some aromatics to the salt and/or stuff the fish cavity with them. Otherwise get a baking pan large enough to hold your fish with 2 cms of space surrounding the fish. Put half of the salt in the bottom of the pan so that there are 2 cm of salt surrounding the fish, put the fish on top, add the remaining salt, ensuring even cover and that the fish is completely covered. Bake 20 minutes (or 10 minutes per 2 cms of thickness of the fish). To check if the fish is done, poke a metal skewer or a knife tip through the salt through the thickest part where the head joins the body. Remove and touch it to your lips, if it is hot then the fish is ready.
Bring the whole fish to the table and crack open the salt seal so that everyone can enjoy the perfume. Remove the salt in chunks and brush off the rest, peel off the skin and remove the meat with a palette knife to a serving plate, remove the bones and with the palette knife remove the rest of the meat to the serving plate. Drizzle with really nice extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice and serve immediately.
Do you have a similar style of cooking that you love?