There are just three steps to roasting a fish whole, and none of them are hard. First, pan-sear your fish in a large sauté pan on top of the stove. Then take the fish out, add thin slices of fennel, and put the fish back in the pan; the fennel slices absorb the flavor of the broth, the fish, and the chilies. Finally, roast the fish in the oven. You can grill a whole fish if you prefer, but be sure to finish it in the oven so the juices of the fish have a chance to mingle with the herbs and spices. I like to serve a whole fish to each person. This recipe explains how to cook four whole fish in a home kitchen. You'll have to sauté two fish at a time, but you can roast them all at once; use a large roasting pan and don't overlap the fish. If you're serving two people, just halve this recipe. I like snapper (particularly red or Thai snapper), but you can use this cooking method with just about any fresh, firm-fleshed fish, such as striped bass, "rouge", black bass, or trout. Try it with any whole fish that's within one or two pounds. I love the flavor of Calabrian chilies with fish. You can find them packed in oil in specialty stores.
1. Preheat the oven to 450°.
2. Rinse the fish in cool water and pat dry with paper towels. Rub each fish with 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Heat 1/2 cup of the olive oil in a 12-inch saute pan over medium-high heat. Add two of the fish to the pan and sear on each side until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes per side.
3. Remove the fish from the pan and pour off the excess oil. Place half of the fennel slices in the pan and lay the seared fish on top of the fennel. Add 1 1/2 cups of the stock, bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, and immediately remove from the heat. Carefully transfer the fish and fennel slices to a large roasting pan, cover, and set aside. Discard the cooking liquid. Repeat with the remaining fish, 1/2 cup olive oil, fennel slices, and stock.
4. Roast, covered, until the fish is cooked through, 20 to 25 minutes. Warm 4 plates during the last few minutes of cooking. Remove the pan from the oven, carefully set the fish aside, and divide the fennel into four servings. Spoon a serving onto each of the warmed plates and place a whole fish on top of the fennel. Transfer the liquid from the roasting pan to a saucepan. Add the thyme, chilies, and olives and bring to a simmer. Pour over the fish and garnish with the parsley.
5. Buying Fresh Fish: If cooking fish is new to you, seek out a good source for fresh seafood. Check farmers' markets or ask your favorite restaurant where they buy their fish. When buying a whole fish, be sure to pick it up and smell it. A fresh fish feels firm in your hands and smells more of the sea than "fishy." Scales should be smooth and shiny and the eyes should be clear. Look at the gills to make sure they're pink or red, not gray or brown. Whenever possible, have your fishmonger clean the fish--most will be happy to do this for you. "