This is a dish that is just perfect for entertaining. It serves so many functions all at once: while looking gorgeous and seeming impressive, it is actually not too hard to make, and while being baked fish and therefore healthy it is also salmon
, which even dedicated fish haters will eat. It’s a main and side dish all in one, saving on labour and mess, and it involves the bare minimum of washing up
Yes, it really is the stuff you made in school and baked little sculptures of. Baking in salt dough is a traditional technique employed everywhere where there are large open fires or charcoal ranges and not too much money - it serves in the place of expensive metal roasting dishes. In Italy they have a similar tradition of roasting a whole chicken in wet clay, then breaking it and discarding the shards before eating - yummy. The covering keeps all the juices close to the meat, so it comes out moist, succulent and tender. An added benefit is that you can put your fish in the oven early in the day and leave it in there to keep warm for as long as you like - it will not dry out or overcook.
To make enough salt dough for a good sized fish you will need 1kg flour, 0.8kg salt and 0.2kg vegetable oil, also a cup or so of water. There's very little finesse involved here - bung everything together but the water, get in with your hands and mix furiously. Add the water bit by bit (it really helps to have someone do it for you while you mix) until all the flour has been incorporated and the dough is springy to the touch; you can also keep adding a bit of oil from time to time for extra elasticity.
Now the hard bit: knead, sucker! The longer you work this dough the more elastic it will be, the thinner you can spread it and the more tender the fish will be. When you feel like your arms are about to fall off and the kitchen table is about to buckle, cover the dough with a wet kitchen towel and set aside.
For this dish, I don't subject the fish to any treatment whatsoever. It is particularly important to remember not to rub salt into it, the results may become inedible as the flesh will absorb quite a lot of salt from the dough. Choose a fresh, large fish with clear eyes and shiny skin. Have the fishmonger clean out the guts and yuck for you. When you get home, grab a filleting knife and make an incision on one side of the spine, all the way along from tail to gills; this will create a larger cavity for the stuffing.
Last time I made this dish I used shop bought ginger and plum stuffing, and very nice it was too. Previously though I had been more diligent and made my own by mixing a large amount of ground almonds with a cup or two of Perry and a bit of butter: now that was heaven. Basically anything that strikes your fancy would work, be it savoury, sweet & sour or completely fruity. I encourage you to experiment.
Try to fit as much stuffing as you can into your fish, as this will serve as a side dish with the flesh. I used my hands to quite aggressively poke and squeeze and compact and knead until it all went in.
The Assembly Line
On a clean surface that has not been floured, roll out half the dough into a rough oblong. If it sticks to the rolling pin, use your hands to flatten it instead as you would plasticine. Place the fish on top and make sure the tips of the head and tail are sticking out. Fold up the sections along the sides.
Roll out the second half of the dough in a similar way, place over the top of the fish and pinch the seams shut. If you get into trouble, remember: none of this gets eaten or even served. You can patch it up as much as you like, tear it, glue it on with water or beaten egg - it doesn't matter, so don't panic. Just as long as every bit of fish between gills and tail is tightly covered.
Now, I've only ever made this over a charcoal fire, so it's a bit difficult to translate into domestic terms. Try placing the fish on a flat tray and baking it in a medium heat oven for about 1.5 hours - 2 or 2.5 if you want to make triple sure it's cooked through, after all, it won't dry out.
Take the fish out of the oven and let it rest for about 15 minutes, during which time the outer layer of dough will become cool enough for you to handle with your fingers. Take a sharp knife and make and incision along one side of the fish, belly or back. Then carefully start lifting the stiffened plate of salt dough off the fish. I would recommend craning your neck to see that you are not tearing the flesh off the main body of the fish. If you find that you are, and in fact it's very normal for the skin to stick to the dough, use a small knife to gently separate the two.
When you've taken off the top layer of dough, either tip the fish over and do the same to the other side or, if your stuffing is threatening to spill out, gently lift the whole fish from the bottom plate, again using the small knife to make sure you don't leave chunks behind.
That's it - put it on a big plate and serve, to the sounds of admiration, praise, and most importantly – pleasure.