Words and Recipes by
A Tale of Two Fishes
Photography by
Grilled redfish and black sea bass are easy entrées to cooking whole fish

Romans encrust whole Mediterranean branzino in salt and theatrically crack it open with the back of a spoon tableside to diners’ delight. The Portuguese munch on whole grilled sardines, about six inches long, with only the biggest—and boniest—heads left on the plate. 

But modern American cooks and eaters shy away from dishes involving tails that hang over the plate and eyes that stare back. Esthetics, retail availability, and lack of kitchen experience have fed this aversion to whole fish. 

Colles Stowell is principal of One Fish Foundation, a Yarmouth-based nonprofit organization that teaches Maine eaters of all ages about sustainable seafood. He pulls double duty as director of education for the Gloucester, Massachusetts, Cape Ann Fresh Catch, the largest community-supported fishery (CSF) operation in the country. A CSF works like a community-supported agriculture model in which customers pay in advance for a set amount of product weekly and agree to accept the species that can be pulled from the sea at that point in time. 

“Only 15 percent of our shareholders buy whole fish, and the majority of those have roots in Asian cultures. They waste little while saving money, which is standard in their home countries,” says Stowell. 

In New England, we’re spoiled by a history of large fish—cod, halibut, swordfish, and Atlantic salmon—being processed into fast-cooking fillets, explains Susan Tuveson, seafood lover and owner of Acorn Kitchen, a commercial community kitchen facility in Kittery Foreside. “We need to get used to eating the smaller fish that swim in the Gulf of Maine. There are some delicious choices,” says Tuveson. Those include American butterfish, herring, mackerel, plaice, and whiting, to name a few.

A growing variety of whole fish is surfacing in retail outlets like Harbor Fish Market, and Browne Trading in Portland, Jess’s Market in Rockland, Fisherman’s Catch Seafood Market in Damariscotta and even some Hannaford’s fish counters. Fishmongers willingly offer to dress the fish by removing guts, scales, and spiny fins. They’ll take the head off, too, if the buyer really can’t stomach that, but Stowell and Tuveson agree with the Japanese—the cheeks are the best part of any fish. 

Redfish and black sea bass are two prime examples of smaller, more widely available smaller fish. 

Acadian redfish, also known as ocean perch, have a storied history as lobster bait. Their spiky fins prick lobstermen and smelly racks attract lobsters. But fresh, these small fish —between one and a half and three pounds—are a sustainable choice year round because of their abundance in deep Gulf of Maine waters. Happily for us, with their clear big eyes, pretty skin shading iridescent red to orange to white, and firm, sweet, snow-white flesh, they are also a grilling delight.

Black sea bass, on the other hand, is an invasive species. Historically, they’ve been found in the highest concentrations between Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, where they are sought after by both commercial and recreational fishermen and are subject to size restrictions and tight quotas. Until about five years ago, very few hearty (or very hungry) black sea bass would venture into the chillier waters off the coast of Maine. But as if we needed more evidence of climate change—the Gulf of Maine is the fastest-warming body of water in the world—many more black sea bass are ending up as bycatch in Maine lobster traps. Mainers should eat black sea bass—one fish will feed two people—because they prey on shrimp, crab and lobster, all of which are culturally and economically important to the state.

Plus, their flesh is delicious and “their bones make excellent stock,” chef, sustainable seafood advocate, cookbook author, and Freeport resident Barton Seaver told me. Grilling either redfish or black sea bass is a relatively easy, quick way to get them to the plate, and if you can do it outdoors in good weather, so much the better.

“A grilled whole fish has more flavor and moisture than a fillet because it’s being cooked with the bones,” says Seaver. “Like any bone-in protein, it tastes better. And as the fish cooks, the steam from the bones keeps the flesh from drying out,” 

To prep a whole fish for the grill, marinate it in a favorite vinaigrette for at least an hour but not more than two. Seaver prefers to cook over charcoal, but his technique transfers to a gas grill. He places the whole fish on the grill directly over hot coals and cooks it there for five minutes. Then, he rotates the grate so the fish is opposite the coals rather than directly over the heat (if grilling with gas, simply switch which element is pushing out flames); uses tongs and a fish spatula to gently flip it over. Then, he covers the grill; and cooks it until the skin is crispy and the fillet flakes away with a little pressure of his thumb, about 10 to 15 minutes. He does nothing more than transfer the fish to a plate and drizzle a flavored oil over it to serve.

Oh, and removing the flesh from the cooked fish’s bones is easier than you think. Buy some smaller fish to grill, and you’ll be competent if not ready to do it tableside at Le Bernadin with Eric Ripert looking on.

Here’s how Susan Tuveson from Acorn Kitchen explains it. Using a thin-bladed knife and starting just behind the head, cut along the backbone toward the tail. With a hand or a fish spatula, gently lift the top fillet away from the spine and serve. To get at the bottom fillet, starting from the tail end, slowly lift the spine upwards. Use a knife to flick away any remaining rib bones from bottom fillet, and serve.

“It takes a cook only a few times to perfect this skill, which is an impressive one to have,” says Tuveson.

In addition to impressing your dinner guests, by using whole fish, you’ve also honored its life.

Buying a whole fish

Look it in the eye and give it a good sniff. The eyes should be clear and bulging. Sunken cloudy eyes means it’s been on ice too long. It should smell like the sea and not at all like ammonia or bleach. Having the fishmonger scale and cut it on his fish counter spares you the mess on yours.

Chili Lime Marinated Acadian Redfish

Serves 2

2 fresh, dressed, Acadian Redfish, each about 1½ pounds 

⅓ cup packed light brown sugar  

⅔ cup fresh lime juice 

3 tablespoons rice vinegar 

2 tablespoons sesame oil

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon lime zest 

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons minced cilantro

1 tablespoon grated ginger

1 tablespoon sliced lemongrass

1 tablespoon sliced red Fresno chili pepper

1 tablespoon sliced green serrano chili pepper

Lay the fish in a non-reactive pan. 

In a large measuring cup, combine brown sugar and ⅔ cup warm water. Stir to dissolve sugar. Add all other ingredients to the measuring cup. Stir, and pour half of the sauce over fish. Set the rest of the sauce aside for serving. Refrigerate fish for at least 1 hour but no more than 2.

Preheat grill to high. Clean grates and oil them well. Lift fish out of the marinade and place on the grill over direct heat. (Discard fishy marinade.) 

Cook for 5 minutes. 

Then, if using a charcoal grill, rotate the grate so the fish are opposite the hot coals. If using gas, turn the heat element under the fish off and fire up the one opposite the fish. Use tongs and a fish spatula to gently flip the fish over. Cover grill and cook fish until skin is crispy and top fillet flakes away with a little pressure of your thumb, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a warm plate and serve with reserved sauce.

Mediterranean Stuffed and Grilled Black Sea Bass 

Serves 2

1 2–2½  pound fresh, dressed Black Sea Bass

Olive oil

Flaky sea salt

1 lemon, sliced

½ red onion, thinly sliced 

1 bundle aromatic herbs on the stem (parsley, thyme, oregano)

Kitchen twine, optional

Rub olive oil all over the fish, inside and out. Sprinkle salt inside the fish’s belly. Stuff the belly with layers of lemon slices, onion slices, and herbs. If you’re worried about losing the stuffing while grilling, cut three 6-inch pieces of cooking twine and tie them around the fish at 2-inch intervals, securing them with a tight knot. Place the fish in the refrigerator for at least 1 but not more than 2 hours.

Preheat grill to high. Clean and oil grates well. Place fish on the grill over direct heat for 5 minutes. 

If using a charcoal grill, rotate grate so the fish is opposite hot coals. If using gas, turn the heat element under fish off and fire up the one opposite. Use tongs and a fish spatula to gently flip fish over. Cover grill and cook fish until skin is crispy and top fillet flakes away with a little pressure of your thumb, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a warm plate, drizzle with olive oil and serve.

Christine has lived in many places, including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, England and France. But her professional world has consistently been grounded in just two: in journalism and in the kitchen. Throughout her 30-year writing career, she’s covered sports, politics, business and technology. But for the past 10 years after completing culinary school, she’s focused on food. Her words and recipes about eating locally and sustainably have appeared in publications from The Portland Press Herald to Fine Cooking. Her award-winning cookbook Green Plate Special (link is: https://www.amazon.com/Green-Plate-Special-Sustainable-Delicious/dp/1944762140) was published in 2017. When she’s not laboring over a cutting board or a keyboard, she’s learning from her two semi-adult children, a community of food-minded friends, hundreds of productive Maine farmers, thousands of innovative chefs near and far, and her 30,000 honeybees.


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