Sauce bites salmon as grilled fish meets a perfect partner


August 08, 1993|By ROB KASPER

Summer is a good time to grill a slab of fish for supper. Grilling gives you an excuse to spend time outside, tending the fire and drinking in the evening air or whatever else you want to drink.

The cooking style gives most pieces of fish a distinctive flavor. Tuna, for instance, tastes much better when it has been cooked over a charcoal fire than when it has been baked in an oven.

My time over the grill has taught me that once you've figured out how to cook the fish without destroying it, the next step to backyard bliss is finding the right sauce to serve with the grilled fish.

During recent adventures, I had one flop with a piece of swordfish, and one success with a salmon fillet.

One reason the swordfish flopped was that I overcooked it. The sauce couldn't save it, because in making the sauce I left out one of the ingredients. The recipe called for fresh oregano. I didn't have any. I was so happy there in the backyard, drinking in the evening breeze, that I wasn't about to go scurrying on an oregano hunt. The sauce ended up being so-so. So it goes in the world of grilling.

The sauce on the grilled salmon, however, was sensational. It was a ginger vinaigrette that came from a recipe by California chef Wolfgang Puck found in "Cooking With the New American Chefs" by Ellen Brown (Harper & Row, $13, 1985).

Salmon is not my favorite fish to grill. I prefer tuna, shark or swordfish. They are hunkier. Moreover, if I do cook salmon, I like salmon steak, not a fillet. The steak is easier to flip. When you flip a fillet there is always the chance that your supper will slip between the grates on the grill. But since a fillet of salmon was the only fish in the fridge, that is what I cooked.

It was a Saturday night, and the charcoal fire I cooked the fish over was perfect. These two facts are related. A perfect fire requires patience. You have to light the coals, then let them burn down to the ideal, ashy state.

On weeknights patience is hard to come by. I arrive home hungry and end up cooking when the fire is too hot. But on weekends, the pace of life eases. Moreover, I snack during the day so I am not famished at supper time. On Saturdays I will grill no fish before its time.

On this Saturday night I tossed the fillet of salmon on this perfect fire, and reminded myself of the essentials of grilling fish. Just keep that fillet over the fire, I told myself, until the interior flesh of the fish turns opaque. I knew that, depending on the thickness of the fish and the heat of the fire, this could take five to 10 minutes a side.

And I knew if I wasn't exactly sure whether the insides of that smoldering salmon were cooked, I would cheat. I would peek. I would take the fish off the fire, and cut a small slice through the flesh and check the color of the flesh, looking for the same shade all the way through.

I would also check the texture. If the knife moved easily through the fish, it was done. If the knife struggled, I'd cook the critter some more. If the flesh crumbled and was dry, I would impale myself on the spatula.

My fire was hot, so the salmon fillet did not spend much time on the grill. I flipped it after 4 minutes or so. Then after another 5 minutes on the other side, the thin fillet was supper. The sauce, a blend of rice-wine vinegar, ginger and sesame seeds, gave the dish its bite.

It was a pleasant night, so my wife and I dined at a table set up in our backyard. The night sky was luminous. The wind rustled trees, almost drowning out the wail of a passing siren. Ahhh . . . salmon in the city.

Wolfgang Puck's ginger vinaigrette

1 ounce (about 1 1/2 tablespoons) fresh ginger, peeled and minced

3 medium shallots, or green onions, minced

1/2 cup rice-wine vinegar

juice of 2 limes

2 tablespoons soy sauce

sesame oil to taste (less than 1 tablespoon)

1 cup olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

1 bunch cilantro or parsley

1/3 cup sesame seeds, toasted in 350-degree oven for 10 minutes

In large bowl combine ginger, shallots, vinegar, lime juice, soy sauce and salt and pepper. Whisk in sesame and olive oils, beating until thick.

When fish has been cooked, add cilantro. Serve portion of fish on 3 tablespoons of vinaigrette, garnishing with sesame seeds.

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