Many people get a bit uncertain about trying to cook fish. Some are worried about making the house smell like the dumpster at a seafood restaurant. Others are fearful that they will dry out their prized catch. Fair enough, but if the fish is freshly caught, aroma isn’t an issue. As for dryness, with the right recipe, it’s not that hard to hit the sweet spot in cooking a fish. Cooking fish is actually a lot less complicated than grilling a steak, for example, or roasting a leg of lamb. With a piece of meat, you can have it rare, medium, or well done. With fish, once the flesh turns opaque…it’s done. End of story. All you can do after it reaches that point is to dry it out. I’ve had the good fortune to have written cookbooks with some terrific chefs and I’ve learned a lot from them.
I am mostly a catch-and-release fisherman because I know that if we kill every fish we catch, pretty soon there won’t be anything worth catching. Remember, many of the fish that we enjoy fishing for are top predators. That means that there are relatively few compared to baitfish. Think about it this way: out on the African plains, there are far fewer lions than impalas. Likewise, in a stream, the trout-to-minnow ratio is low, so it doesn’t take a lot of fishing pressure to turn a blue ribbon trout stream into “don’t bother unpacking your rod.” Still, I recognize that one of the reasons we take pleasure in catching fish is that fish are food and humans get great satisfaction in gathering food. For that reason, I think that keeping and cooking the occasional fish deepens our appreciation of these creatures that we snatch from their watery home and deliver to the dinner plate. I guess it all comes down to what a veteran fisherman once told me “Limit your kill. Don’t Kill your limit.”
My pal, Ned Baldwin is a fish-a-holic chef, originally from Seattle and now New York City. His restaurant is about a nice hike over the Brooklyn Bridge from my home. When he’s not cooking, he’s fishing out on the North Fork of Long Island. He and I bonded over our mutual love of fishing and cooking and spent two years writing a cookbook “How To Dress An Egg.” It’s about a lot more than eggs. Case in point: this grilled fish recipe
Grilled Whole Fish Recipe:
Many people shy away from this method because they think they’ve failed if a little skin sticks to the grill. No big deal. Not everything in life looks like it does on Top Chef. And if a bit of skin sticks, more of the flavor of woodsmoke will infuse the flesh of the fish. I’ve done this with small bluefish, mackerel, snapper, porgies, bream and crappie. If you clean the grill with a wire brush and then oil it, you’ll be fine.
Note: When Ned and I made this for Food & Wine magazine, he added a topping of grilled fresh cherries and sweet bell peppers that he threw on the grill. If you like that idea, a grill basket or wire mesh will keep the fruit and vegetables from falling through the grate.
- 2-4 fish ¾ lb 1 to 2 pounds each
- 2 to 3 tablespoons oil
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
Rub the fish evenly all over with oil (don’t drench it). Sprinkle the salt all over.
Give the grill bars a good scrub with a metal brush, then wipe them down with an oiled rag. (A grill with a thicker grate works better than the classic Weber, but you can work with whatever you have. Fire up the grill; you want medium heat (meaning you can hold your hand about 4” above the grill for a count of 4-Mississippi before it feels uncomfortably hot). I like to grill a piece of bread before I cook the fish so I can see what kind of heat I’m dealing with. Ideally, the bread browns evenly and at a reasonable pace, not too slow and not too fast—although given the choice, I’d choose slower every time. You’ll need a pair of tongs as well as a metal spatula.
Grill the fish, find a spot on the grill with fairly even heat and gently lay the fish down there. The heads should go over the hotter part of the grill so the thickest meat gets the most heat. Once you put fish on the grill, leave it, even if it’s not exactly in the prime spot. After 3-4 minutes, use your fish spatula to gently lift up part of each fish to see if the skin is sticking and if you’ve established a crust.
If there’s no crust yet, leave it for another minute or two. The, if the fish isn’t sticking, reach over and put your spatula in the organ cavity of each fish and roll it over. If you are not sure about this maneuver or the fish sticks a little, gently insert the spatula under the fish while pulling it up by the head with a pair of tongs. Even if it sticks a little, turn the fish over to finish cooking.
After another 2 -5 minutes, use a metal skewer, cake tester or a meat thermometer to pierce the meat at its thickest point. When you remove the skewer, it should feel quite warm above your upper lip.
If it is, you can remove the fish from the grill. If you’re really not sure, fleck a bit off the part that you will serve yourself and taste.
With your tongs in one hand and the spatula in the other, use the tongs to lift the head, slide the spatula under the body, and lift the fish off the grill and onto a serving plate. Drizzle some oil all over and garnish with lemon or lime.
This recipe as well as many more are featured in the cookbook “How To Dress An Egg.” To purchase this cookbook click the link here.
Peter Kaminsky is a long time fly fisherman and author. His Outdoors column appeared in the New York Times for more than 30 years. He was a contributing editor to Field & Stream. Among his fishing books, the classic “The Moon Pulled Up An Acre of Bass. He is also the author of 17 Cookbooks including 7 Fires with Francis Mallmannn. He fishes New York Harbor a lot.”
All photos by the talented Will Hereford (@williamherford).