Whole baked fish is dramatic center of low-fat meal

March 01, 1992

For informal entertaining of friends, Martha Rose Shulman likes to mix easy dishes with complicated ones, casual dishes with dramatic ones. A whole baked fish provides the drama but also the ease in a menu from her new book, "Entertaining Light" (Bantam, hardcover, $25).

Once the vegetables for the menu are julienned, it takes only a few minutes to saute them and then put the fish in the pan. The oven does the rest, and you can even serve it in the dish if it's a pretty one.

You'll need a long baking dish for the fish, but if a bit of the fish's tail hangs out over the edge, that's fine. You can either snip off part of the tailfin or just leave it and cover the fish tightly with the aluminum foil.

Baked whole fish with slivered vegetables

Serves six.

1 very fresh sea trout or salmon (about 4 pounds), cleaned

1 tablespoon olive oil plus another tablespoon for the dish and fish

2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch-long julienne strips

2 medium leeks, white part only, cleaned and cut into 2-inch-long julienne strips

3 medium zucchini, cut into 2-inch-long julienne strips

3 to 4 tablespoons water, as needed

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/2 bunch of fresh dill

2 lemons, cut into wedges

Keep the fish refrigerated until 2 hours before you're ready to bake. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large non-stick or well-seasoned frying pan. Add the julienned vegetables and cook, stirring over medium-high heat, for a couple of minutes. Add 3 to 4 tablespoons water, as needed, and salt and pepper to taste and continue to cook, stirring or shaking the pan, for another 5 minutes, until just barely soft. Remove from the heat.

Oil a baking dish that will accommodate the fish. Spread the vegetables around the edge of the dish so that the fish will be in the middle.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Rinse the fish and pat dry. Rub lightly with olive oil and salt and pepper both sides. Stuff the cavity generously with sprigs of fresh dill. Lay in the baking dish ,, and sprinkle with lots of chopped fresh dill. Pour the wine into the baking dish and cover with foil. Crimp the foil securely around the edges of the baking dish. Bake for 30 minutes or until the fish flakes easily with a fork and is still juicy in the middle. Remove from the heat and serve at once.

To serve: You can transfer the fish to a platter and surround it again with the vegetables, or transfer the vegetables to a serving dish, or you can serve from the baking dish, which is easier, and if your baking dish is attractive it will look nice as well. Using a sharp knife, cut lengthwise straight down the middle of the fish. Remove the skin, which should come off easily. Sprinkle the fish with more dill. Now cut crosswise slices from the middle to the back and to the stomach and lift the portions off the bone.

Once you have removed the fish from one side, remove the bones in one piece by lifting from the tail and bending the skeleton toward the head. The bottom flesh should fall off (ease it off with a spatula or knife if it doesn't). Sprinkle the bottom half of the fish with dill. Continue cutting portions from the bottom half and serve, garnishing each portion with the vegetables and lemon wedges.

Advance preparation: The vegetables can be prepared and cooked hours ahead of time and left at room temperature. The fish can be prepped and made ready to bake hours ahead of time. Make sure that it is at room temperature when you put it in the oven.

Leftovers: The fish and vegetables would be great tossed with

pasta, added to an omelet or added to a salad.

Spaghetti squash gratin

Serves four.

1 large spaghetti squash (about 3 pounds)

3/4 cup skim milk

2 medium eggs

2 tablespoons grated Gruyere cheese

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

3 tablespoons medium to fine fresh bread crumbs

2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon olive oil

First bake the spaghetti squash. Heat the oven to 400 degrees and pierce the squash in several places with a sharp knife. Place on a lightly oiled baking sheet and bake for 1 hour or until the squash has softened. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Cut the squash in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds. Scoop out the squash from the skin and place in a bowl. Using a fork, separate the spaghetti-like fibers.

Beat together the milk and eggs. Stir in the Gruyere cheese, salt (about 1/2 teaspoon), lots of freshly ground pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg. Mix thoroughly with the spaghetti squash.

Lightly oil a 12-by-8-by-2-inch baking dish or gratin dish with olive oil and transfer the spaghetti squash mixture to the dish. Top with the bread crumbs and Parmesan, and drizzle on the olive oil.

Bake for 30 minutes or until the gratin is set and browned on the top. Serve hot.

Advance preparation: The entire dish can be assembled hours ahead of the time you wish to bake it. It should be at room temperature when it goes into the oven.

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