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Catch of the day; For an alternative on the backyard grill, try some fish

Move over burgers, step aside chicken; if you want to grill something that's truly fast food, consider the fillet over the filet mignon.

Many cooks forget fish when they pull out their grills, favoring the traditional beef and pork. But grilling fish produces fillets that are so flaky and flavorful, you won't think twice about missing the beer batter or the deep frying.

Grilled fish is healthy -- virtually fat-free save a small brushing of oil or butter to keep it from sticking -- and cooking it on wooden planks can add deep flavor without increasing the calories.

Karen Adler and Judith Fertig, a cooking duo from Kansas known as the BBQ Queens, said plenty of cooks, particularly landlocked Midwesterners, overlook fish when it comes to grilling and are surprised to learn how easy it is.

Collectively, Adler and Fertig have written more than 20 cookbooks mostly on grilling and barbecuing, including the newly released "Techniques for Grilling Fish and Techniques for Planking" ($12.95 each, Harvard Common Press). The pocket-sized books are easy to follow and full of essential information for learning about grilling fish.

"I think the easiest way to grill fish is to plank it," Adler said. Planking, or cooking on a plank of aromatic wood that has been soaked in water, helps to keep fish moist and eliminates the need to turn the fillet over, so sticking isn't an issue. Fish on a plank cooks via indirect heat, off direct flames. It's important to soak the plank in cold water for at least an hour before putting it on the grill so that the wood doesn't burn during grilling.

If you don't have a plank, aluminum foil also works well, for lining the grill grates and creating packets for fish.

When it comes to how long to cook fish on the grill, Adler and Fertig advise a simple "10 minutes per inch of thickness" rule, turning over at the halfway point. A salmon fillet that measures 3/4 of an inch thick will need to grill roughly 7 to 8 minutes, or about 4 minutes on each side over high, direct heat.

Curt Klein, owner of Klein Seafood on Grant Street in Akron, Ohio, said much of his seafood is shipped in from North Carolina, where the fishing schedules dictate what will be fresh, plentiful and affordable at various times of the year. In June and July, tuna, swordfish, mahi mahi and grouper are widely available, he said.

Because tuna and swordfish are thicker fish steaks, rather than fillets, they can cook directly on grill grates without the risk of falling apart or sticking, Klein said, adding that grilled grouper is one of his particular favorites.

Perforated grill racks, which look like a cookie sheet with holes punched into it, are a great accessory for grilling fish, because they too will help to keep delicate fish from falling through the grates, he said.

Grill racks or baskets also come in handy for cooking shellfish, like shrimp, Klein said.

Most cooks like to skewer shrimp and scallops before putting them on the grill, but Klein said putting shrimp on the grill without skewers, either on a rack or piece of foil, is actually a better way because it will be easier to see when they begin to curl up -- an indication of doneness.

Klein, who sells Gulf of Mexico-caught shrimp from Texas, said the BP oil spill already is starting to drive up shrimp prices, which already have rise $1 per pound at wholesale since the disaster. Much of the price increase, Klein says, is in anticipation of a reduced catch.

Klein hasn't raised retail shrimp prices yet, but he may in August. Texas Gulf shrimping season begins in mid-July, after which there should be a better indication of how the catch and prices have been affected by the spill.

Fertig said when grilling shrimp, it's best to cook the extra-large size, as smaller ones will dry out quickly.

When cooking any fish, the BBQ Queens advise making sure the grill is very hot and well-oiled to help keep fillets from sticking. Also, start cooking fish with the skin side of the fillet up, so that after it is turned over, the skin side is the last to come off that grill -- another trick to help keep fillets from falling apart.

Adler said fish can be grilled with the skin, which typically slides off easily once cooked. But if the fillet already has been skinned, look for the side that is a little darker to identify the skin side.

Perhaps their best advice for grilling fish is to not be afraid to experiment.

Adler and Fertig's books include a variety of recipes for rubs, slathers and marinades that will enhance the flavor of fish on the grill and help to keep fillets flaky and moist; however, they urged cooks to branch out as they perfect their grilling techniques.

Here are a sampling of their recipes.

>Planked Salmon with Mustard-Mayo-Dill Slather

1 salmon fillet, 3/4 -inch thick, skin removed (1 1/2 to 2 lbs.)

1 15-by-6 1/2 -by- 3/8 -inch cedar or alder grilling plank, soaked in water for at least 1 hour

For the slather:

1/2 cup Dijon mustard

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill

1 clove garlic, minced

Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon

Prepare an indirect fire in a grill, with a hot fire on one side and no fire on the other.

To make the slather, combine all the ingredients in a small bowl until smooth.

Compare the length of the plank with the length of the salmon fillet and trim the salmon to fit the plank, if necessary. Place the salmon on the prepared plank and spread the mustard slather over the top.

Place the plank on the grill grate on the no-heat side. Cover the grill and cook until the fish begins to flake when tested with a fork in the thickest part, 25 to 30 minutes. Serve the salmon hot, right from the plank.

Makes 6 servings.


>Grilled Tilapia with Spicy Lemon Pepper Rub

4 tilapia fillets, about 6 oz. each

Olive oil

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted (1 stick)

2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

For the spicy lemon pepper rub:

1/4 cup lemon pepper seasoning

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 1/2 teaspoon firmly packed light or dark brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Prepare a hot fire in a grill. Oil the grill grate and a perforated grill rack.

To make the rub, combine all the ingredients in a small jar with a tight-fitting lid. Secure the lid and shake to blend.

Brush or spray the fillets on both sides with olive oil and sprinkle each fillet with about 1 teaspoon of the rub. (Save the rest for later use; it will keep in the cupboard for several months.) Place the fish, flesh side down, on the oiled perforated grill rack and grill for 10 minutes per inch of thickness, turning once halfway through. A fish fillet is done when it begins to flake when tested with a fork in the thickest part.

Remove from the grill and season with salt and pepper. Combine the melted butter and lemon juice and drizzle the lemon butter over the grilled fish. Serve hot.

Makes 4 servings.

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