P.J. Stoops built up a reputation as fishmonger to many of Houston's best restaurants (Reef, Underbelly) by using the bounty of Gulf seafood to get people to expand their horizons beyond the usual suspects. "It's all about contextualizing things," says Stoops, who is opening a Northern Thai restaurant called Foreign Correspondents in Houston this fall. "If something is brought to people as weird, they don't want to eat like that. I learned to take some things that seem strange and demystify them."
There is no fish he will not grill whole in the Thai style (pla pao) with herbs stuffed into the cavity – sheepshead, sand trout, scorpionfish, porgy, any small white-fleshed fish. Try this loose recipe with whatever whole fish looks best at your market and whatever herbs and citrus you like best – and serve it whole, skin on. Says Stoops: "There's no cleaning, no stress. And if you mess it up, it's still going to be good."
Pla Pao (Grilled Whole Fish) (serves as many as you want, as long as you get a big enough fish)
- 1 whole fish, 1-3 lbs, gutted and gilled. (Do not scale the fish. If you want to be fancy, cut off the fins.)
- a little less than a box of relatively coarse salt
- herbs, citrus, and garlic (as much or as little as you want)
- small amount of good olive oil (or any kind of oil. You just need some liquid fat.)
- lime juice
- Thai fish sauce
- sliced Thai chilies
- minced garlic
- cilantro leaves
(All of this will go in a food processor. Add as much of each ingredient as you want until you like the way it tastes. Some like a very sweet sauce; others go spicier. There is no right or wrong here. It's your sauce, you're eating it.)
Get a good amount of hot coals ready in your grill, positioning them so that the fish will be no more than 10 inches from the coals. Chop, slice, or tear the herbs and aromatics. Rub the entire outside of the fish with the oil. Stuff the gut and gill cavities with the aromatics. Use more than you think you should. Pour the salt in a casserole dish, and heavily dredge the fish. Press the salt onto the fish, and try to get as much to stick as possible. There is no way you can put too much salt on, so go crazy. Carefully put the fish on the grill. The hotter the fire, the better. Cook about 15 minutes, then flip. (Cooking times will vary greatly. The time given is for a 1-2 pound fish.) While it's a shame to overcook a grilled fish, it is certainly not the end of the world. Serve the whole fish as is, with sauce in a separate bowl. Eat with some good rice.