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I don't know if it was the grill, Bob Groben's marinade (1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/2 cup Italian dressing, 5 cloves garlic and 1 tablespoon chopped ginger) or the superb freshness of the whole Caribbean red snapper I purchased from him, but it was one of the best fish I've ever eaten. "Fish is much better when it has that charred flavor," says Groben, owner of Groben's Seafood in Philadelphia.
"Fish was meant to be grilled. It's the best way to eat it," says Elizabeth Karmel, from grill manufacturer Weber-Stephen Products. More and more Americans seem to agree. Five years ago fish wasn't even in the top 10 of America's most popular grilled foods. Last year, according to the annual Weber Grilling Survey, fish was in seventh place, an anchovy's length behind hot dogs.
Though there are dozens of fish that make for great grilling (and plenty of wines to go with them), not every variety of fish is suitable. The best candidates are richly flavored and firm, with some bones or fat to keep them moist and intact. Delicate fish, such as flounder, can be overpowered by charcoal flavors and can easily fall apart on the grill. As a general rule, says Groben, any fish that flakes easily, such as haddock or pollock, isn't a prime choice.
Whole grilled fish are a specialty at Bleu and at Striped Bass, two stars in Neil Stein's Meal Ticket restaurant empire in Philadelphia. At Bleu, chef Ross Essner likes whole branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) stuffed with citrus, garlic and sprigs of fresh herbs. "The ends of the herbs burn a little and give a nice perfume," he says. Whole black sea bass, 1 1/2 to 2 pounds for two people, is the favorite grilling fish of Terence Feury, executive chef of Striped Bass. "We like to keep things simple—really good olive oil, sea salt and lemon. You can't go wrong with that," Feury says.
Steven Raichlen, author of the Barbecue Bible, lists black sea bass and Florida pompano as his favorite whole fish for the grill. Raichlen says that grilling whole fish can be intimidating if you don't know how to tell when it's done. His surefire test is to insert a paring knife along the backbone. The meat should be white and lift away cleanly. A standard rule of thumb is to cook fish 10 minutes for every inch of thickness, measured at the thickest part of the fish. A few slits in the skin will allow the heat to penetrate more easily.
In addition to the fabulous red snapper (which is now under consideration to be placed on the federal endangered species list), I grilled a whole sea bass marinated in olive oil, lemon and thyme, which had a silky texture and rich flavor. A farm-raised striped bass, despite an Asian marinade of soy sauce, garlic, ginger and sesame oil, was a little too timid. Individually portioned, farm-raised rainbow trout were delicious grilled. They're sold gutted and boned but with their heads and tails on, and take only a few minutes of cooking on each side.
Handling a whole fish on the grill can be tricky, particularly when it comes to turning it. Large tongs and a wide spatula, both sprayed with oil, will help. I don't like metal baskets designed to prevent fish from sticking or falling apart, because the fish can stick to the basket as easily as it does to the grill. Of course, you could oil the basket, too.
To minimize sticking, the grill surface should be clean and well-lubricated. Raichlen suggests soaking a ball of paper towels with vegetable oil, then rubbing it on the grill with tongs. Just before putting it on the grill, spray or brush the fish with oil. Wait until one side is cooked before turning it over—the fish will not stick to the grill once it is done—and try to turn the fish only once.
Steaks and thick fillets of fish are more popular choices for the grill because they are easier to handle than whole fish. Firm, fatty fish, such as salmon or Chilean sea bass, work best. One advantage to steaks from fish similiar to salmon is that they have bones, which keep the fish moist and help prevent its falling apart. Salmon may be the single best fish to grill because of its fat content and its adaptability to different seasonings, from Asian five-spice powder to fresh herbs such as dill. More delicate varieties, such as halibut, bluefish and cod, should always be grilled with the bones and skin intact, to help hold the fish together.
Swordfish, tuna, mahi mahi and shark steaks are firm enough without bones, making them great for grilling. I marinated swordfish in olive oil, lemon juice and what Essner calls his "herb trinity" of parsley, thyme and chives, and it turned out wonderfully. I prefer Asian marinades of ginger, soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil for tuna. Fish should be marinated for 30 to 60 minutes.
My test of doneness for white steak fish, such as shark, is to press the flesh. If it springs back, it's done. If you prefer your fish more well-done, wait until it easily flakes. Tuna should be cooked in the same manner as beef, rare to medium rare. Seafood loses heat quickly, so make sure it's the last thing that comes to the table.
Don't forget other seafood options for the grill. I've never had better shrimp than the jumbos I marinated in hot pepper flakes and grilled for three minutes on each side in their shells (to keep them succulent). Skewer them (metal is better than wood) to prevent them from falling through the cracks. For squid, cut the tubes open to make flat triangles, season them with olive oil, salt and pepper, and grill them for a minute on each side.
In addition to marinades, soaked wood chips can add subtle fragrance to fish. So can green fennel tops thrown right on the charcoal. (They can be a bit messy on gas grills, however.)
Before deciding on what fish to grill, you need to figure out what grill to use. Like many Americans, I was seduced by the ease of gas grills. But when I tested salmon fillets on both gas and conventional grills, the old-fashioned approach won the day, giving a more evenly charred flavor to the fish. Even the crispy skin tasted better. I liked the more pure charcoal flavor of hardwood a bit more than the briquettes, but the difference wasn't huge.
Lighter fluid can taint the flavor of fish, so I recommend a chimney-type charcoal starter, which is a metal tube in which the charcoal is efficiently lit by crumbled newspaper or waxy fire starters. If you do use gas, preheat the grill for 15 to 30 minutes.
Ideally, Raichlen says, you'll want a grill surface with two or three different levels of heat. The hottest part of the fire should be hot enough to produce those nice grill marks, but not so intense that you can't keep your hand over the grate for two or three seconds. Whole fish won't cook through before getting too charred on those hot spots; they need to be moved to cooler areas to finish cooking. "The bigger the fish, the lower the heat," Raichlen says.
As for choosing wines to match grilled fish, Marnie Old, beverage director of Meal Ticket, suggests those with oak flavors, which "echo and reinforce the character of the grill" without sacrificing acidity. Low acidity and too much sweetness were the problems I had with a California Chardonnay, even though it was from cool Carneros. A French Meursault was much better. On the other hand, Old says, "some wines can be too lean, too acidic, like a French Chablis or Sancerre. They're not fat enough to handle the flavors of the grill."
Sauvignon Blanc can work with grilled fish, but only when given added richness from oak and perhaps a dose of Sémillon, as is the case with white Bordeaux and some styles from California. Though unwooded, I found an Alsace Pinot Gris had enough body to marry well with most grilled fish. Non-vintage Champagne was great with the jumbo shrimp. Red wines often work well too, as long as they are low in tannin -- try a California Pinot Noir or an Italian Dolcetto.
Plenty of wines. Lots of fish. What are you waiting for?
Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of the recently published Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock.
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