This recipe was one of the first things I tried when I got my first Italian wood-fired pizza oven. It is so simple, yet fresh and vibrant. The salt forms an oven-like dome around the fish to cook it gently and evenly in the citrus and oil. The salt traps the moisture inside for a cooking environment that is partially roasted and partially steamed. The effect is fragrant, moist, and perfect. This method is common in Sicily where they cook with a lot of Italian lemons, olive oil, and sea salt. You can also cook a whole fish this way, instead of using filets. If you do this, of course, beware of the bones when you eat it.

2 Fresh gulf snapper fillets
Juice of 1 Meyer lemons
2 sprigs fresh lemon thyme
1 sprig fresh Rosemary
1 tablespoon Olive oil
2 teaspoons smoked salt
3 Egg whites
1 tablespoon herbs de Provence
3 pounds coarse salt
2 Meyer lemons sliced
Zest of one lemon
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper

First, prepare the fish. Score the skin-side of the fish. Flip the fish over to put the skin-side down. Squeeze the lemon juice over the fish. Make a past of the thyme, rosemary and olive oil. (You can also add the zest of the ½ of the squeezed lemon to the paste.) Spread oil paste on the fish. Wrap fish in plastic wrap and refrigerate for a few hours. To prepare the salt crust, whisk the egg whites and herbs de Provence together until firm stiff peaks form (like a meringue). Add the coarse salt and mix to the consistency of wet sand. (I usually do this by hand.) The egg whites will make the salt crust hard like concrete.

Take the fish out of the refrigerator and remove the plastic wrap. Sprinkle the fish with the smoked salt.

Spread salt mixture in bottom of cast iron pan. Lay in fish on top of salt. Lay sliced lemons on top of fish. Parchment paper or banana leaves on top of lemons. If you don’t have a barrier between the fish and the salt, the salt will turn the fish gray. Then mound up remainder of salt and make a dome to seal in the fish.

Bake in wood fired oven 700 degrees for 12-15 minutes, or an indoor oven at 500 degrees for 15-18 minutes, until salt dome is brown and hard and sounds hollow. (I use the back of a kitchen spoon to tap on it for the hollow effect.)

Remove the top salt crust carefully and discard. (Don’t put it down the drain.) remove the fish to a platter and top with grated lemon zest and cracked black pepper.

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Written by Chef John O'Neil

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