It's that time of year again when one welcome activity pops into everyone's mind: grilling. Grilling just goes with with sunshine, drinking cold beer and having what are usually thought to be the best of times with our buds. There is, however, something funny about it; for many of us, it's a very limited practice in a cartoonish, primal way. Let's all do it together: puff up your chests, beat 'em with your fists and yell "MEEEEEEAT!"
I love the traditional choices for grilling. Who doesn't want a nice brat or burger or some slow-cooked ribs? Well... vegetarians don't, but we won't talk about them. My query? Amidst all of the Texan meat mania we hold so dear, I sometimes find that I'm dying for something different, like fish.
There's been a ton of hoopla in the food world lately about heritage bred pigs and cows, and yes — they're delicious. Yet while we're all excited about the fact that our choices are expanding in these realms, what is often overlooked is how our choices in the seafood world have been nearly limitless for eons. Every fish has its own unique personality and they can be prepared in innumerable ways. One of my favorite methods is on the grill; if you haven't explored this path before, I'd like to offer a few tips to get you started.
I cook on a 22" Weber charcoal grill, always with natural lump charcoal. You can certainly use a gas grill if you find it more convenient, but in all honesty, I'm going with cheaper and tastier. The charcoal basket accessories you can buy at Home Depot or Lowe's for the Webers cost about ten dollars and are well worth the investment for indirect grilling.
I find that Whole Foods generally has the best seafood selection in town, and if you're into sustainability, they provide excellent information about where your fish comes from. Quality Seafood is another great source; the variety tends to be significantly less, but it's usually quite a bit cheaper and is equally fresh. If you're looking for a specific kind of fish, I'd simply suggest calling beforehand to see what vendor suits you best.
I've got two recipes for you. One, plank-grilled salmon, is a little tamer and is a great place to start for those who are a little too scared to let go of their ribeye. The second, whole grilled fish with Southeast Asian inspired dressing, is a bit more adventurous if you feel like exploring.
French Inspired Plank-Grilled Salmon (pictured):
2 roughly 8oz salmon filets, skin on (see note)
1 shallot, minced
1-2 Tbs roughly chopped capers
2-3 Tbs dijon mustard
2-3 Tbs white balsamic vinegar
Roughly chopped leaves from about 6 sprigs fresh thyme
Dash of honey to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Cedar planks (1 to 2, depending on size, available at home improvement stores, Whole Foods, Central Market)
Soak the cedar plank(s) in water for an hour prior to grilling. Note: This is very important, you are putting wood planks on a fire. If you don;t soak them thoroughly, they will catch fire.
Light your charcoal (I use a chimney starter) and once hot, spread coals equally to both sides of your grill, leaving an empty space in the center. This is where the Weber baskets come in handy if you're so inclined.
Combine the minced shallot, mustard, capers and thyme. Add the white balsamic vinegar to achieve your desired level of tanginess and thin the mustard to a more liquid consistency, then balance it out with a touch of honey. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Place the salmon filets skin side down on the planks, and liberally brush with the mustard mixture. Place the planks in the center of your grill grate on indirect heat, cover, and cook for approximately 25 minutes or until cooked through.
Serves 2 — pairs well with yeasty, bright Belgian beer such as Saison Dupont, or a white Burgundy.
Wild caught salmon are the healthiest and most environmentally safe, but responsibly farmed filets work just fine; I often buy them if the wild filets look too thin, and I've always been happy with the results. Whether or not you remove the skin is simply a matter of convenience and/or preference.
Whole Grilled Fish with Southeast Asian Inspired Dressing
For the fish:
Choices: 6 whole fresh sardines, 1 whole branzino, or 1 whole mackerel (your fish monger will remove scales)
Salt & freshly ground pepper
For the dressing:
Juice of 6 limes
Lime slices (optional)
Vietnamese fish sauce to taste (see note)
4 scallions- 2 chopped, 2 whole
1 inch piece of peeled fresh ginger, minced
Hot peppers such as Fresno chiles, habaneros, or Thai bird
Palm sugar (see note) or light brown sugar to taste (optional)
1 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
2-3 Tbs coconut milk (optional)
Prepare the dressing by combining the lime juice, chopped scallions and ginger. Add the fish sauce 1 tablespoon at a time to your liking; it can get a bit funky, so just adjust according to what you enjoy. Mince the peppers to your desired level of heat; Fresnos will give you a milder, sweeter heat, while habaneros or Thai bird chiles will give you quite a bit more. Adding a small amount of crushed palm sugar, light brown sugar and/or the coconut milk will balance the acidity. Finish with the chopped cilantro and let the dressing sit so that the flavors can mingle while you grill the fish.
Light your charcoal and scrape your coals to one side once hot, leaving half for indirect grilling.
Score the fish three times on each side. Mix equal parts turmeric and corn starch, approximately 1-2 Tbs each, add pinches of salt and pepper, and rub the mixture on the outside of the fish. If using a larger whole fish such as mackerel or branzino, place two whole scallions and optional lime slices in the inner cavity. This is not necessary if using sardines. Once your grill is ready, place the fish on the grill grate over direct heat and char well on both sides, approximately 5 minutes on each side for larger fish, then move the fish to the indirect side of your grill and cook for 15-20 minutes more, turning once, until done. Buying a fish grilling basket makes this a lot easier.
If using sardines, simply grill on direct heat for 3 to 4 minutes per side until cooked through and remove. Place the fish on a platter and pour the dressing over it.
Serves 2 to 3, pairs well with a vibrant, fruity white wine such as an Grüner Veltliner or Verdejo.
Oilier fish such as mackerel, branzino and sardines are extremely healthy, and are frequently available in town. Don't be afraid of the oiliness; they're much milder than you'd imagine. If these fish aren't to your liking, you can of course use milder varieties such as black drum or red snapper. Fish sauce is commonly available at grocery stores now, and palm sugar can be found at Asian groceries such as MT Supermarket.
Grilling fish will open up an entirely new food avenue for your upcoming summer. If you're ever uncertain about cooking times, the internet is a vast resource that'll help you get it just right, not to mention tons of new recipes to try. An instant-read thermometer is also pretty handy. In the end, sure, we all want pork shoulder, but you won't regret giving your aquatic friends a shot every once in a while.