WASHINGTON — Washington--I am not afraid of grilling seafood, but mostly I stick with stuff that comes in slabs. Swordfish, snapper, salmon, shark. I am comfortable with fish that behaves like steak on the grill, hunkishly.
I tend to shy away from the smaller stuff. When I attempt shrimp and oysters, for instance, a fair number of them turn into kamikazes and throw themselves into the fire.
And the trickier seafood arts, like grilling a soft-shell crab and cooking flounder on the grill without it falling apart, have eluded me.
So not long ago I took my grilling fears down to our nation'capital to Gary Puetz. Puetz, a chef and seafood consultant from Vancouver, Wash., was there grilling fish for a party being held in the courtyard of the Commerce Department.
I always wondered what people did in the courtyards of thosmassive government buildings in Washington. I was heartened to learn, at least in this instance, that public land was being used for the public good, namely furthering the art of cooking outdoors. Puetz was in Washington as part of a tour around the nation for the National Fish and Seafood Promotional Council. That body is part of the United States Department of Commerce, which is probably how Puetz got permission to smoke up the courtyard.
And so as Puetz hovered over a grill of sizzling shrimp, I pumped him for information and he pumped me full of shrimp.
The secret to grilling shrimp, he said, is threefold. First, cut their tail muscles. Second, dip them in a white vermouth sauce before you toss them on the grill. And third, if you are worried about them falling in the fire, cheat, use a screen.
That was a bit too fast for me, so I asked him to go over the instructions a second time. While he did, I helped myself to a second piece of shrimp.
Puetz lifted up an uncooked shrimp to show me its tail muscles. He pointed to an almost clear fiber running around the shrimp body. This is the muscle, he explained, that the shrimp uses to shake its tail. When you nip the muscle with a knife, Puetz said, you prevent the tail from curling as the shrimp cooks. Since he was working with large shrimp, he also cut along the back of the raw shrimp to "butterfly" them.
The sauce that the raw, cut-up shrimp was dipped in was made with about 1/2 cup of mayonnaise, a pinch of dill, a teaspoon of lemon pepper and enough white vermouth, he said, to make the sauce runny but not watery. The consistency should be a little thinner than mayonnaise, he said. I nodded, and grabbed another grilled shrimp.
To guard against the the problem of kamikaze shrimp throwing themselves in the fire, Puetz suggested putting screening over the grill. Grill screens are sold in cooking stores, or you can make your own, using stainless steel screening sold in restaurant supply houses.
You cook shrimp quickly, he said. Puetz had his on the grill only about three minutes, flipping them once.
Do you grill oysters? I said, looking around to see if Puetz had any of my favorite mollusks he could feed me. He didn't, so I speared another shrimp.
He did, however, have method for grilling oysters: Use tongs to place the oysters, still in the shell, over a very hot fire. Put the flat side of the oyster shell up, the side that is shaped like a dish down on the grill. In a minute or so the oyster will pop open. When it does you grab your basting bulb, the device everybody uses to squirt juice on a turkey, and squirt in garlic butter mixture. The mixture, he said, is made of 1/2 cup melted butter, 1/4 cup of lemon juice, with garlic and white vermouth to taste. Then you let the oysters cook for few more seconds, lift them off with tongs and begin feasting.
As for flounder, Puetz said, the way to keep it from falling apart on the grill is to give it the cookie sheet treatment. Take the fillet, put it on a metal sheet, the kind you bake cookies on, and put it in the freezer. Let it sit in the freezer about 20 minutes. You don't want to freeze the fish, you just want it to firm it up. Then take the fish out of the freezer and let it thaw, still sitting on the cookie sheet, for about 10 minutes. Then grill it over a low to medium fire.
As Puetz explained it to me, I gathered that the cookie sheet treatment does to flounder what sit-ups are supposed to do your stomach, tighten up the flab.
When I asked Puetz about grilling soft-shelled crab, he smiled and sighed with delight. Grilled soft crab, he said, is one of the best foods he has ever eaten.
Puetz said he likes to bathe his soft crab before grilling it. The bath is a made with a little garlic, a touch of sesame oil, maybe some basil and equal parts of soy sauce and white vermouth. The soft crabs are then lifted from their bath with tongs, and
cooked quickly over very hot fire. You turn them once, he said, and watch for flare-ups.
All these grilling techniques sounded good to me. I wanted to talk to Puetz all night. But I could tell it was time for me to leave him. Not only was I running out of questions, he was running out of shrimp.