Fish baked in salt adds a pinch of dining drama

Salt has been used as a flavor enhancer and preserving agent since Day 1 - more or less.

Less known is its use as a cooking medium.

Fish, or meat, baked in a thick salt crust ensures a freshness, honest flavor, and moistness not ordinarily obtained by more conventional cooking methods.

And then there's the dining- room drama in presenting a whole fish or a roast of beef (see recipes) encased in a hard layer of salt and cracking it open at the table in front of your amazed and unsuspecting guests.

There's no better way to guarantee the freshest fish than by purchasing it whole. The eyes should be bright and clear, the gills pink or red with no trace of gray, and the smell of the fish should be as sweet as a sea breeze.

In many European countries, especially in the Mediterranean, serving a fish whole at the dinner table is de rigueur. Unfortunately, many Americans are turned off by this presentation. "Oh, I can't stand to see those eyes staring up at me," they cry. Well, let me assure you, unless that fish is far fresher than it should be, it's not staring out at you or anything else.

Even on the seacoast, markets don't always carry whole fish, but will obtain one for you with a day's notice.

The fish must be strictly fresh, frozen fish just won't do, and have your fishmonger clean it and remove the gills, as they can impart a bitter taste to the fish.

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