Master cooking fears with tips, and easy recipes


June 19, 1991|By Marilynn Marter | Marilynn Marter,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

DO YOU APPROACH outdoor cooking with increasing stress?

Are you abandoning your health-conscious menus in favor of red meats, hot dogs and burgers?

You may be suffering from a fairly common culinary malady afflicting many otherwise competent cooks at this time of year.

You may be suffering from ...

Fear of Fish!

Overcooked fish. Charred fish. Fish crumbling into the coals.

With so much fish being consumed for reasons of health, more cooks are learning to handle this often fragile food. But many still have problems. Problems we addressed to fish expert Bud Bruno.

"I don't know that there's any type of fish I haven't used on the grill," said Bruno. "You shouldn't be limited by the fact that it is cooked on a grill.

"Just remember the rule of 10 minutes (cooking time) to an inch of thickness. With a gas grill that usually means using the low setting or a temperature around 400 degrees."

The inch rule applies to all fish regardless of length or weight. But if your grill is much hotter than 400 degrees, reduce the cooking time to between seven and 10 minutes to the inch. Just as with meats, you can cook something a few minutes more if necessary. You can't undo overcooking. Fish falls apart only if it is overcooked.

The most obvious measure of doneness for fish is the opaque white or light color that replaces the translucence of the raw flesh as it cooks.

A short time on a medium-hot grill works for small fish or thin filets, which will cook through quickly without turning. Thick fish portions should be grilled at a lower temperature and turned once for even cooking. When filets taper, tuck the thin end under to even the thickness.

Bruno also recommends grilling fish with the skin on.

"I don't scale them either, because on the grill the scales are a natural protection for the fish. Even without the scales the skin would become too crisp and hard to eat."

That skin shield can be left on the grill if it burns or sticks. Just run a spatula gently between the flesh and the skin and lift what should be perfectly cooked fish onto a serving plate. The skin can be scraped off the grill later.

Although sacrificing the skin -- and with it much of the fat in some fish -- you are retaining moisture and flavor in the flesh. The skin also helps to hold the fish in its natural shape.

Thick filets can be cooked directly on the standard grill grid but thin filets, with or without the skin, are more easily cooked in grill baskets -- long-handled metal "cages" that let you lift and turn several items in one quick movement -- or on grill-top grids designed to cover more open grill racks. A rectangular basket will be more useful as it can hold meats, vegetables and other foods for grilling, as well as fish.

To judge the temperature of an open grill, cautiously hold your hand, palm side down, over hot coals just above the grid. If you can hold your palm to the heat for five seconds, the temperature is low and best for grilling fish, seafood and roasts. With hotter coals or a lower grid, your tolerance for the heat may be four seconds. That is medium. If the hand-to-heat level is three seconds, you are cooking on medium-high. Rate the grill hot -- ready for burgers and ribs -- when two seconds or less of heat is all you can stand.

Unless finished with a nonstick coating, the cooking grid or basket should always be well oiled and preheated before food hits the grill.

Of the many ways to flavor fish on the grill, Bruno favors marinades.

"I like marinating because it's easier, less hassle, not too involved," he said. Just mix the marinade, pour it over the fish, and refrigerate it for one hour or more to absorb flavors. Marinades also keep fish moist.

According to Bruno, anything, everything, can be marinated, even though the more flavorful fish, like salmon and bluefish, don't really need it. When preparing fish for kebabs, Bruno notes that it is best to marinate the chunks before threading them onto skewers. Kebabs cook more evenly when food chunks are kept fairly uniform in size.

If you choose to baste foods on the grill with thick and sweetened sauces, like most barbecue blends, do the basting near the end of the cooking period. This will reduce the risk of flare-ups and charring.

Fish also benefit from fresh herbs. A few tablespoons of a favorite chopped herb -- perhaps lemon thyme or rosemary -- thrown on the grill will infuse fish with its aroma.

A grill -- from a simple grid set over a standard campfire to the elaborate backyard cooking carts -- and charcoal or other appropriate fuel are the only essentials for a cookout.

To grill a stuffed, whole fish without the benefit of a grill basket, simply tie wet kitchen twine around the body of the fish to secure the filling.

But for those who grill frequently, good grill accessories and tools can save time, aggravation and sometimes costly ingredients that might be wasted by overcooking, charring or falling through the grill rack.

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