Let’s say while vacationing in Vieques, you went on a fishing charter and caught a good-looking snapper or grouper. A great way to show off (and enjoy) your catch of the day would be to throw that baby on a hot grill and serve up an impressive dinner. Why the grill instead of the oven? Because it will make that hard-earned fish taste so sublime. Grilling a whole fish makes for a dramatic presentation and is thrifty at the same time: you get to deliver a gorgeous, smoke-kissed fish to the table and you lose far less meat than had you filleted the fish beforehand. Here are a few tips to help deliver a perfect grilled fish every time.
- Start with a scaled and gutted fish with head and tail intact. You need to slash the fish on both sides every one and half inches. This helps distribute the heat so the fish will cook evenly. Use a sturdy, super-sharp knife to do this. You want nice even cuts, not mangled flesh.
- Grilling fish can be a little tricky. To keep your beautiful fish from sticking and falling apart make sure your grill is very clean, very hot and very well oiled. Do this by soaking a paper towel in vegetable or grape seed oil, then wiping down the grill with it. As for the fish itself, coat it with tastier oil such as olive or avocado. Make sure you rub the oil into the cuts and inside the cavity as well. Oil will reduce the sticking factor and also help the seasonings adhere to the fish. Now, liberally sprinkle your fish with salt and pepper, including the head, tail and inside the body cavity. Save additional seasonings for when the fish comes off the heat.
- Lay the fish down on the grill with the tail facing farthest away from the heat. It will cook much faster than the head, even with the slashes you made. It is very important that you do not grill a large fish over very high heat! It will burn to a crisp on the outside before the center is cooked through. Steady, medium heat is what you want. How long? The general rule is ten minutes per inch of thickness. Muy importante! Begin timing your fish as soon as you place it on the hot coals. My four and a quarter pound Sama (a type of local Snapper) took about twenty minutes, or ten minutes per side.
- Only flip your fish once. Fight the impulse to move it around. Patience is required and will pay off in the end. The fish is ready to be flipped when it can be moved without sticking to the grill. Carefully lift the fish with two metal spatulas (or one long one) that have been brushed with oil on both sides and GENTLY flip it over. Sometimes, no matter how careful you are, sticking happens. Don’t worry, the fish will still be tasty.
- You’ll know the fish is done by the cooking time (timing is everything!) and by looking at the cuts. The inside should be cooked through. Carefully lift it off the grill and set it on a platter to rest a bit. Now is the time to put the finishing touches on your masterpiece. Here is a recipe for a tasty sauce using local ingredients found here on the island.
Take a bow as your dinner guests applaud.
Puerto Rican Chermoula
Chermoula is a classic fish marinade from Morocco. I prefer to use it as a sauce on whole grilled fish and have tweaked the recipe to reflect a more Puerto Rican flavor profile. The recipe makes enough marinade for a 4 1/2 pound whole fish or 2 or 3 smaller fish.
1 large bunch cilantro, stems removed
1/2 bunch flat leaf or curly leaf parsley, stems removed
4 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg
3/4 cup good quality olive oil
Juice from 3 or 4 local limes
Place all ingredients in a food processor or blender and pulse until coarsely chopped. Transfer charmoula to a small serving bowl. Spoon about two or three tablespoons of the sauce over the whole grilled fish. Then add a teaspoon or two of water or olive oil to the remaining chermoula sauce to thin it, making it easier to distribute over each serving of fish. Store any leftover chermoula in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
flavorful oils with a high smokepoint great for grilling
clean grill with