The Chinese like to feature whole steamed fish on the menu of their New Year's feasts. Said to signify togetherness, abundance and long life, it's a dish with symbolism. You're supposed to leave the bones, head and tail intact, a way to help ensure that the new year will be a winner from beginning to end.
When buying fish, many of us tend to opt for the ease of fillets. The prospect of buying, prepping and deboning a whole fish might seem not just novel, but also daunting. Ditto for the prospect of steaming a whole fish, a precarious project for even experienced cooks.
So here I propose baking your whole fish rather than steaming it, and wrapping it in foil to keep it moist. It's much easier to cook it this way. It also has the added benefit of creating an instant sauce.
But let's start at the beginning. You're at the store checking out the fish on display. How can you tell if a whole fish is fresh? Its eyes should be clear, not cloudy, and its gills should be brightly colored, red or pink.
Once you've picked your winner, ask the fishmonger to clean it for you. If you don't plan to head home right away, ask for a bag of ice to place next to the fish.
Begin prepping your fish by scoring it, slicing deeply into the flesh. This will allow the marinade to penetrate to the core and for the fish to cook evenly. Feel free to adjust the seasonings to your tastes, but the soy sauce is key because it contributes salt as well as flavor.
How will you know when it is done? Pull the pan out of the oven, open up the foil carefully and poke the fish with a small, sharp knife. If the knife slides in easily all the way to the bone, the fish is done. If there's some resistance, cook it a little longer.
After you have filleted the fish, ladle some of the cooking liquid over each portion and dig in. It's a treat any day of the year.