This dish is perfect for the holidays—it’s a beautiful presentation, and it brings the smell of pine right into the
kitchen. The pine needles infuse the fish with a gentle, slightly sweet aroma. (The skin of the char serves to protect the fillets from the pine sap—for that reason, I recommend peeling it off before serving.) Pine needles can be found about anywhere, but I prefer those from a Christmas tree. If you cannot find pine needles, use a mixture of hard-stemmed herbs such as rosemary and thyme. Serve with Roasted Radicchio with Sambuca Dressing from For Cod and Country.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Make a bed of pine needles, using half the needles, in a large ovenproof pan. Place the char on its side on the needles and layer the lemon slices and thyme sprigs inside the cavity of the fish. Cover with the remaining pine needles. Roast for approximately 40 minutes. The best way to check to see if the fish is done is to gently wiggle a knife into the flesh at the backbone. Lift up to expose the flesh and check that it is an even color throughout. Or another method used in professional kitchens is to stick a toothpick into the flesh, pushing it right down to the spine. Hold it there for a few seconds, then pull it out and immediately place the toothpick under your lower lip. If it feels hot, the fish is done. You can also peek inside by gently lifting the belly flap and poking around, but try not to disturb the needles too much.
While the fish roasts, prepare the sauce. Place the olive oil, onion, and garlic cloves in a small saucepan over medium heat and cook, without stirring, until the onion begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the pine nuts and cook for a few minutes to warm them through. Transfer the contents of the pan to a blender, add the lemon juice, and season to taste with salt. Begin to pulse on low speed so that pressure does not build up (use caution when blending hot liquids). As soon as the mixture is turning smoothly, increase the blender speed to high and add the water. Once it reaches a silky smooth consistency, pour the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve to remove any pieces that did not purée. Taste the sauce for seasoning and allow it to reach room temperature before serving.
To serve the char, remove the pine needles from the top and run a knife just under the skin to separate it from the flesh. Fold back the skin and, starting at the tail, push a dinner fork or table knife to the backbone and slide it across the bone to lift off the fillets. Do this in small, manageable pieces so that you don’t have a disaster. The meat should separate right at the bones, and you should be able to take the fillets off either side. Divide the fillets among 4 serving plates and garnish with a dollop of the pine nut sauce.