- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 26, 2005

When I was growing up, fish came baked, fried, frozen or from a can. We never saw it grilled.

Fast forward to 2005, and even die-hard steak and potato eaters like my father are as likely to order grilled tuna as New York strip.

Cookware shops abound with devices for grilling fish, from fish-shaped wire baskets to flat metal fish grates. Planked salmon from the Pacific Northwest has given rise to a whole cottage industry of wood grilling planks.

Fish, however, poses a unique set of problems for the griller. Will it stick to the grate? Will it break into pieces when it’s turned?

And how do we know when it’s done? I wish I could say there was one answer to all of our fish grilling dilemmas. There isn’t.

Different types of fish require different techniques, but the good news is that once we have mastered those techniques, we can cook virtually any type of fish without leaving half of it stuck to the grill.

Here, then, are my 10 strategies for perfectly grilled fish.

1Choose the right type of fish. Firm steak fish, such as tuna and swordfish, are the easiest to grill. Their dense, meaty texture reduces the tendency to stick to the grate or to break apart when you turn them.

Salmon steaks are easier to grill than fillets, since the backbone holds them together. Choose fish steaks that are at least 1 inch thick. Don’t forget to give each a quarter turn after 2 minutes of grilling to lay on that handsome crosshatch of grill marks, which is the signature of a master griller.

2Choose the right grilling method. Use direct grilling (a high heat method that involves grilling the fish directly over the fire) for fish steaks, fillets

and small whole fish, such as trout. Use indirect grilling (a moderate heat method that involves cooking the fish next to the fire or between two mounds of glowing coals) for medium to large whole fish, including trout, snapper, bluefish and salmon.

3Practice good grill hygiene. The best way to keep fish from sticking to the grill grate is to remember the grill master’s mantra: “Keep it hot. Keep it clean. Keep it lubricated.” Start with a very hot grill grate. Clean it with a few strokes of a stiff wire brush. Oil the grate with a paper towel folded into a tight pad, dipped in a bowl of vegetable oil and drawn across the bars of the grate at the end of tongs.

Practice this sequence every time you fire up the grill until it becomes second nature. Do it just before the fish goes on and again after it comes off. Not only does the technique minimize sticking, it yields killer grill marks.

4Oil the fish as well as the grate. When working with fish that is particularly prone to sticking, such as sole and salmon fillets, lightly brush it on both sides with vegetable, olive or sesame oil just prior to placing it on the grate.

The operative word here is “lightly,” since over-oiling will cause flare-ups and a sooty residue. As you place each piece on the grate, gently slide it forward to brand grill marks into the flesh.

5Use a fish grate, which is a flat wire grid or perforated metal plate that is placed on top of the conventional grate. Because there’s less surface area and actual metal (in the case of a wire fish grate, at least), the fish is less likely to stick.

With flat metal fish grates, it’s easier to slide a spatula under the fish to turn it. (Be sure to use a wide-headed spatula). Just remember to preheat the fish grate well and oil it before putting on the fish.

6Use a fish basket. Fish baskets are hinged wire baskets that are either square to accommodate fish steaks and fillets, oval to accommodate whole fish or rectangular to accommodate multiple fish or fillets. The idea is to turn the basket, not the fish, so the latter doesn’t stick to the grate. The best fish baskets come with detachable handles so you can close the grill lid. Just remember to oil the basket well before adding the fish.

7Use a stick. This is probably the oldest method for fish grilling, and it’s certainly one of the best. Simply impale a whole fish on a stick (or large flat metal skewer) and hold it over the fire. I’ve enjoyed fish grilled this way in locales as far-flung as Mexico, Jamaica and Thailand. It’s perfect for camping, when you’ve just caught a few trout and you want to cook them over a campfire.

8Use a plank. Planked salmon is the Pacific Northwest version of the American Indian technique for grilling salmon on cedar or steaks in front of a bonfire. Grill and cookware shops sell wood grilling planks that are generally about 12 inches long, 6 inches wide and - to 1-inch thick.

Soak the planks in water for 1 hour before grilling, drain well and place the fish on top. Set up the grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium or medium high. Arrange the plank on the unlit section of the grill and lower the lid. Cooking time for 1 to 2 pounds fish is 20 to 40 minutes.

Yes, you can reuse the plank if you wash it well after each use. There are three advantages to plank grilling: The fish never sticks to the grate. It never falls apart, since it doesn’t require turning. And hot, wet cedar or alder planks impart a fantastic flavor. Note: Never use pressure-treated lumber for planking. It can contain harmful chemicals.

9Use the poke test to check for doneness. Press the top of the fish with your index finger. If it is gently yielding, it is medium rare, which is ideal for tuna. If it crumbles or breaks into clean flakes, it’s cooked through, which is ideal for cod, salmon, swordfish — indeed, for most fish except tuna. (I may be old-fashioned, but I like my salmon cooked through.)

Another test for doneness is to insert a slender metal skewer into the center of the fish and leave it there for 20 seconds. It should come out very hot to the touch. When cooking large whole fish, you can make a little cut in the back with the tip of a knife. Look for the flesh next to the bone to be opaque, not translucent. Remember that fish continues to cook a little after it’s off the grill.

10 If all else fails and your fish is a disaster, tell guests that this is how it’s cooked in Tuscany. (All foods Italian, of course, are perfect in every way.) If it burns, scrape off the burned part, sprinkle the remaining fish with chopped fresh herbs and drizzle with olive oil. If it breaks apart, stick the pieces back together, sprinkle with chopped fresh herbs and drizzle with olive oil. Remember, half the battle in grilling is showmanship.

Bacon grilled trout

This recipe can be grilled using any of the preceding methods. If trout isn’t available, use other small whole fish or even 4 6-ounce salmon fillets with a pocket cut in the side to contain the dill and lemon.

4 large (about 1 pound each) fresh trout or other small, whole fish, cleaned

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons butter, room temperature

12 sprigs fresh dill or other fresh herbs

12 thin half lemon slices, rind cut off and seeds removed, plus lemon wedges for serving

8 strips of bacon

Have ready 12 pieces of butcher’s string, each about 8 inches long.

Wash fish and blot dry. Season cavity of each fish with salt and pepper to taste. Using a knife, spread a little butter in the cavity of each. Place 3 sprigs fresh dill or other herbs and 3 half lemon slices in each cavity.

Lay 3 pieces of string parallel to each other on a work surface, about 3 inches apart. Lay a strip of bacon perpendicular to the strings. Lay a fish perpendicular to strings on top of the bacon. Lay another strip of bacon on top of the fish. Bring ends of strings together and tie to wrap the fish in bacon. (This is a lot harder to describe than to do.) Wrap remaining fish the same way. Grill fish following one of the methods described above. If direct grilling (on the grill grate, on a fish grate, in a fish basket or on a stick), preheat the grill to medium high. Cooking time will be 6 to 10 minutes per side.

If indirect grilling on the grate or a plank, set up the grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium high. Cooking time will be 20 to 30 minutes. In either case, remember to remove the strings before serving and serve with lemon wedges.

Makes 4 servings.

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