As much as Americans delight in fish fillets and fish steaks, Greeks relish their fish whole. Cooks eye the array the fishermen have brought in, picking the one they will slide before kin or client. Waiters exhibit trays of the whole fish offered that day as soon as diners sit. Other restaurants display the catch in glass cases. In the lineup there might be a red mullet, gem of the Aegean—famous for its flavor and its high price—stretched next to a mackerel, a bream, or a sea bass. The Greeks are absolutely right: there’s nothing quite like an entire fish, cooked bone-in, opened on the plate, fragrant steam rising.
Any whole fish can be wrapped in tangy grape leaves. Set on the grill and broiled, it cooks to aromatic and moist perfection. Mackerel is the choice here, but small red snapper, herring, mullet, striped bass, large sardines, or trout from inland waters would also work beautifully.
Yield: Serves 6
6 whole mackerel or other small, whole, bone-in fish (8 to 10 ounces each), scaled and gutted
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
24 to 30 grape leaves (see Notes)
Lemon wedges, for garnish
1. Remove the heads from the fish or leave them on, as you prefer. Liberally salt the fish inside and out and rub them inside and out with the lemon juice.
2. Gently squeeze the excess liquid out of the grape leaves without wringing them dry. Wrap enough grape leaves around each fish to enclose it completely, head to tail. Place the wrapped fish on a platter, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or up to several hours.
3. When you are ready to cook the fish, heat a grill to medium. Lightly coat the grape leaf wrapping with olive oil.
4. Place the fish on the grill and cook until the leaves are lightly charred all around and the fish flakes easily when pierced with a fork, 8–12 minutes. Serve right away, garnished with the lemon wedges.
Grape Leaf Tricks
Since bottled grape leaves come in stacks with the leaves cupped together facing the same direction, you can cut off the stems from an entire stack at one time before separating the leaves for filling. For fresh grape leaves, you need to trim each leaf individually, either before or after blanching.
Antiphanes, a writer of the fourth century B.C.E., makes it clear that seafood was abundant and that the ancient Greek appetite was, to put it mildly, lusty. Certainly Antiphanes’ appetite was. He lists a veritable plethora of fish, and it seems he planned on eating them all at one sitting: “Let us have a sliced mullet,” he said, “a simmered electric ray, a filleted perch, a stuffed squid, a baked smooth-tooth fish, the first slice of grayfish, the head of a conger eel, the belly of a frog that fishes, the flanks of a tuna, the back of a ray, the loin of a spotted fish, a bit of sole, a sprat, a shrimp, a red mullet, and a hogfish.”