The Lure of Grilled Fish Some fresh ideas to help a Father's Day barbecue go swimmingly

June 17, 1998|By Tina Danze | Tina Danze,Universal Press Syndicate

The two traditions make an ideal combination - firing up the grill and celebrating Father's Day.

Summer ushers in the grilling season, time to hit the deck and pull the cover off the grill - unless you are a fan of all-weather grilling.

Instead of the traditional steak or burgers for Dad on Sunday, try seafood for something a little different. A Cajun Catfish Sandwich is as down-home as a burger. Charcoal-Grilled Trout With Herbs adds a light but tasty touch to a menu of grilled onions, corn on the cob, potato salad and coleslaw.

Moist and meaty, fish steaks - salmon, tuna, swordfish or any big Hawaiian fish - can be as satisfying as sirloin, and better for you.

Even Tex-Mex seafood has earned its stripes on backyard grills. Try grilled fish wrapped in a tortilla with grilled onions and drizzled with salsa-spiked mayonnaise. And Barbecued Shrimp Stuffed With Chili Peppers sets off the kind of fireworks that will dazzle any red-blooded chili-head.

Fear of fish

Grilled seafood may be the restaurant rage, but many backyard grillers hesitate to tackle fish, says Jane Nelson, operations director for the Weber Grill Line. "They aren't sure it's going to work," says Nelson. "They're fearful of overcooking."

It's a fear easily conquered, however, when you follow a few guidelines. For example, the general test for doneness is that the fish turns from translucent to opaque, and the flesh flakes when prodded with a fork, Nelson says. "You have to realize it's quick [cooking], so watch the fish closely."

If grilling fish over medium heat, generally allow 10 minutes per inch of thickness, with some exceptions. Seafood market owner Tom Haden says swordfish, salmon and tuna shouldn't be cooked as long, because a little translucence in the center is desirable.

"People think, 'I've got to cook it fully,' but what that does is dry it out. If anything, tuna should be a little pink in the center, for medium-rare." That means cooking 7 to 8 minutes for a 1-inch-thick tuna steak. He says cooks who prefer their fish rare should be certain they've bought fresh fish.

The other big grilling fear is of the fish sticking to the rack. To avoid the problem, Haden suggests oiling a clean grill rack and preheating it. Also, he suggests brushing the fish with oil and turning it only once, halfway through the estimated cooking time.

"Too many people flip-flop steak throughout the cooking process," Haden says. "You do that with fish and it's going to break up." Flipping fish too soon also leaves flesh on the rack, he says. In contrast, once the fish has been seared, it's less likely to stick when turned.

For best results, stick to firm-textured fish, such as tuna, shark, salmon, catfish and snapper. Delicate fish fillets, such as sole and flounder, fall apart easily.

Thinner pieces of fish can be grilled on lightly greased aluminum foil, Nelson says. If the fillets are thin enough and have no bone, they should cook through without turning. Thicker fillets can be turned with a spatula.

The whole fish

Grilling a whole fish makes for spectacular presentation and flavor. But because large fish can be unwieldy to turn, select small- to medium-sized fish. A 1-pound fish or smaller can be a single serving.

"I like whole catfish," says Robert Williamson, an avid griller. He grills small catfish in individual pouches of heavy-duty foil, sprinkling the fish with bottled tequila-lime sauce, Spanish olives and whole hot chili peppers.

"I seal it up like an envelope," he says, "and it puffs up like a frog as it cooks." He adds that a double thickness of heavy-duty foil should make the package durable enough to flip with tongs without breaking the fish.

But foil won't work if you want a crispy skin and charcoal flavor. A charcoal-grilled whole fish requires some finesse to turn, too, but a wire-hinged grill basket makes it easy.

Adding flavor

Marinating fish isn't necessary, but it can add flavor. The key is not to go overboard. Too strong a marinade can overpower fish. So can marinating it too long. Usually, 15 minutes is plenty of time, although some recipes advocate marinating up to 30 minutes. Citrus-based marinades can actually break down fish meat, ruining its texture.

Marinades are best reserved for thick fish steaks, such as swordfish and shark; avoid marinades completely on thin fillets and whole fish.

When marinating fish, use light-flavored marinades, such as a mixture of lemon, olive oil, garlic and herbs or spices. One idea is to dilute bottled teriyaki sauce with three parts water to one part sauce to lighten it.

Shellfish also are poor choices for marinades, Williamson says, but they do have enough flavor to handle any flavor competition. Even bottled barbecue sauce works on shrimp, Williamson says. He prepares Barbecued Shrimp Stuffed With Chili Peppers by brushing on store-bought barbecue sauce just minutes before grilling.

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