Whether you’re enjoying the last days of summer on a seaside vacation or simply trying to capture that beachy vibe for your backyard dinners, now is the time to pick up the catch of the day and heat up the grill. Though requiring a little finesse, a variety of fish—from supermarket salmon fillets and tuna steaks to restaurant-menu specials like black bass, sea trout and pompano—take well to the open flame and only get better when matched up with late-summer produce. Juicy ripe tomatoes, sweet corn, crisp cucumbers and fresh herbs add zest in the form of sauces and sides. We’ve rounded up five enticing recipes that range from no-fuss to impressive enough for guests, along with an eclectic set of white and red wine pairings and tips to make grilling worry-free.
In this late-summer meal from Lisa Giffen, executive chef at Audrey in Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum, a side act steals the show: tart, zingy, subtly spicy salsa verde made with the season’s green and yellow tomatoes. Pureed, chopped and stirred together, they add a lively punch to grilled sea trout, a fish whose flavor and texture fall between freshwater trout and salmon (its relative, which would make a fine substitute here). The trout gets a boost from a subtly eclectic marinade—a mixture of garlic, turmeric, fish sauce, sumac and neutral grapeseed oil—that is equally at home on other fish like branzino or chicken. For a final flourish, the finished trout is topped with a salad of basil and mint.
For those not practiced in grilling fish, Giffen provides her tips for success alongside the recipe. But it comes down to basics: Start with a clean grill and leave the fish alone, only flipping once.
Restaurateur Soa Davies Forrest, who oversees Audrey’s Old World– and California-focused wine list, pairs the trout with a ripe white from the Spanish variety Godello, with citrus and orchard fruit flavors and subtle herbed accents. The wine’s lushness counterbalances the fresh salsa and greens while highlighting the marinade’s tangy sweetness and the fish’s richness. It’s excellent on its own too, so treat yourself to a glass while you’re cooking.
"Anything cooked on the bone is just that much more flavorful and juicy,” says Altamarea Group chef and partner Michael White of his preparation for black bass, stuffed with herbs and lemon slices before being placed in a grill basket to cook. The chef, who has helped spread the gospel of serious Italian cuisine in the United States and globally, serves the mild, firm fish with a choice of two sauces, both piquant with capers. The salsa Palermintana brings together tomatoes, olives, onion, basil and red-wine vinegar, while the salsa verde, given depth with anchovies and mustard, stars parsley. “People think parsley’s a garnish—like, they put a few pieces on something—but it’s really got flavor,” says White.
A white wine might seem a natural fit with all the herbal, citrus and briny notes in this dish. But Altamarea beverage director Hristo Zisovski—who oversees the group’s stellar wine programs, including Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning Ai Fiori in New York City—turns to an Italian red from Sicily’s Etna region. An alternative to Pinot Noir, Nerello Mascalese offers smoky, minerally and spicy notes but is high-toned and refreshing enough for a fish dish. This pairing is just one of four courses from White—along with seafood salad, ricotta pansotti (a stuffed pasta) and strawberry crostata—so if you’re feeling ambitious for the long Labor Day weekend, make the whole summer menu.
Balmy summer nights are really made for relaxed dinners that you can linger over, and there’s nothing fussy here to keep you from enjoying the evening, just fresh flavors, prepared simply. The fish is brushed with a straightforward oil-lemon-garlic mixture and the saucy, quick-to-prepare orzo will still taste great if you let it cool off while you chat or grill. If tuna is unavailable, use salmon steaks or another fatty fish. If you don’t have feta, shaved Parmigiano is also delicious.
Numerous crisp white wines will work alongside the herbal and lemon elements in this dish; try this with a quality Vinho Verde from northern Portugal. A perfect summer wine, Vinho Verde is refreshing, typically low in alcohol, often has a light sparkle and tends to be remarkably inexpensive. Its bright citrus notes perk up the fish and orzo, while the mineral edge leaves a clean finish that invites you to dive into the next bite.
Fast, easy, light—all it takes to pull together this elegant dinner is a little mixing, a little slicing, an hour to do something else while the salmon fillets marinate and a few minutes on the grill. Two ingredients do double duty here; mild white miso paste and flavorful, toasted sesame oil serve as the base for both the marinade and the salad dressing. The cucumber salad will hold well if you prepare it in advance, so you can have everything ready earlier in the day and just finish off the salmon on the grill or stove when you’re ready to eat.
This dish will find happy matches among both red and white wines: Look for wines with enough freshness to complement the cucumbers, enough body to stand up to the meaty salmon without overwhelming it and a savory quality to work with the umami notes in the miso paste and the soy sauce. An Austrian Grüner Veltliner—characterized by crisp apple, white pepper, citrus and herbs—played up the lighter, brighter aspects of the dish and was ideal for a hot, sunny day. For a cool, breezy evening, a sleek Oregon Pinot Noir—with bright cherry and juicy raspberry flavors and light tannins—highlighted the richness of the salmon and the savory soy flavors. Just another reason to make this dish twice.
Grand Award–winning Commander’s Palace executive chef Tory McPhail shares this uniquely New Orleans take on surf-and-turf. Fillets of sweet, mild, white-fleshed pompano are given a kick of spice with Creole seasoning, dressed with a brown butter–thyme vinaigrette and served alongside boiled corn, potatoes and other vegetables and, optionally, sweetbreads fried until crispy.
Two keys that locate the dish geographically are the crab boil, which McPhail calls “New Orleans court bouillon,” and the use of vinaigrette, a local trick for adding zing to a dish. “Pompano is a rich, elegant fish, and sweetbreads are rich. You need that brightness,” says McPhail. An additional lift comes from wine director Dan Davis’ selection of a fleshy white Burgundy. While the Chardonnay’s ample texture intertwines with the pompano and sweetbreads, its structured acidity focuses every bite. Geaux fish!