When my mind turns to vinegar, I think of pickles, and barbecue sauces and evocative nicknames. Vinegar helps transform cucumbers into pickles. Vinegar's power to tenderize meats puts it at the heart of the best barbecue sauces. And whenever I hear the word "vinegar," I am reminded of Vinegar Bend Mizell. His real name is Wilmer David Mizell. He was a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and later the Pittsburgh Pirates. I never saw him play. I didn't follow those teams. I simply loved the name. He got it, according to the story, when a scout pulled the kid from a swimmin' hole in Vinegar Bend, Ala., and watched the lad hurl a baseball.
Until recently none of my vinegar-based conjurings involved pouring vinegar on fish. But the other day I found myself brushing vinegar on a whole red snapper.
It wasn't ordinary vinegar. It was fancy balsamic vinegar, vinegar with basil in it. And I tossed in handfuls of flavorful ingredients, like capers, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and parsley.
Then I cooked that snapper on my barbecue grill and was surprised.
First of all, even though that fish had been bathing in vinegar, it didn't end up tasting like a pickle. The vinaigrette took the mild flavor of the snapper and gave it a little edge. Not a biting edge. More like an intriguing nibble.
Moreover, the flesh was moist yet cooked, from the skin to the bone. Like good barbecued ribs. Good eating.
Another thing I liked about this vinegar treatment was that it called for lots of basting. I regard basting as therapeutic. It is similar to painting but without the worry of spills or cleanup.
And as I rhythmically brushed the vinaigrette back and forth on the fish, it reminded me of painting the back porch.
But unlike painting, if you spill something on yourself when you're basting, you don't have to wash it off. It simply becomes part of your oeuvre.
I began my brushwork after reading "Seafood Grilling Made Easy," a brochure put out by the National Fish & Seafood Promotional Council, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington.
The brochure gave a couple of recipes, including one that called for grilling a whole snapper on the grill.
I always regard cooking a whole fish on the grill as a challenge. The exciting part comes when I flip the fish. Invariably the grill tries to hold on to some of the skin. If you fight it, the grill will not only grab the skin, it will latch on to the flesh of the fish as well.
Over the years I have learned the trick is to keep interfering. I do this by occasionally sticking a spatula under the fish and scooting the fish ever so slightly to another spot. This slows down some of the sticking.
Another trick I have learned is to let the grill be content with taking some skin. I regard it as an offering to grill gods. Once satisfied, the gods will let go of the remaining fish skin, and you can successfully complete the flip. I'm told you can avoid this sticking problem by using those hinged wire baskets, or covering the grill with foil. But these cowardly approaches take most of the fun, and some of the flavor, out of grilling fish.
Another aspect of this recipe I found appealing was that it called for making three diagonal cuts down to the bone, on each side of the fish. The theory behind these cuts is that they ensure even cooking. They also provide an easy way to check to see if the fish is done.
I liked them because I am currently enamored of any kind of diagonal cuts. I toyed with the idea of putting a few diagonal cuts in my hair, in the style sported by some pro basketball players.
But I don't have enough hair to risk that. So I have to be content with slashing the snapper.
It is a nice dish. All that basting and flipping make me feel good.
Who knows, if I keep serving it to my friends, maybe I'll get a nickname. Something like "Vinegar Snapper Kasper." It wouldn't totally accurate, of course, since this is not my recipe.
But when nicknames are involved, accuracy sometimes suffers. It turns out that Mizell, who was known as Vinegar Bend throughout his career and during his tenure as a congressman from North Carolina, was actually born in Leakesville, Miss., about 15 miles from Vinegar Bend, Ala.
Grilled whole red snapper
From "Seafood Grilling Made Easy," published by the National Fish & Seafood Promotional Council
1 2-pound whole red snapper
1/4 cup olive oil
2 lemons, juiced
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon minced garlic
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon capers
Combine all vinaigrette ingredients. Mix well.
Rinse snapper under cold water and pat dry. Make 3 cuts diagonally on each side of fish, down to the bone. Brush generously with vinaigrette and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.
Grill snapper over medium hot fire, on first side for 8 to 10 minutes, until it has a nice char. Flip, baste with vinaigrette and cook an additional 10 to 12 minutes until opaque throughout.
Remove from grill, brush on both sides with any remaining vinaigrette and serve.