Springtime sparks desire to fire up grill

March 24, 2004|By ROB KASPER

SPRING INSPIRES RASH behavior. At the first breath of tender weather, we throw on shorts, ride around in convertibles and fire up grills.

All these activities make sense in July. But in the faux warmth of spring, they can inflict pain. Like the convertible riders who start off with their tops down but end up with their windows up and their heaters blasting, we backyard grillers have a tendency to push it, to pretend life is sunnier than it really is.

This is especially true in March, the trickiest month for the backyard griller. Like many dedicated smoke hounds, I don't stop using my barbecue cooker during the winter months.

Part of my snow-shoveling routine is to clear a path to the cooker, as well as shovel out some maneuvering room around it. Even in the dead of winter, you can do some good work on a backyard cooker. But you have to add extra fuel to your fire, and you often end up racing daylight. So while I do fire up in the dark months, I do so infrequently.

By the time March rolls around, I am itching to burn charcoal on a regular basis. Yet March is the cruelest month for a backyard barbecuer. The sun and wind play games with you. One lures you outdoors to light the coals only to have the other toy with the fire, making it too hot or too cold or simply snuffing it. If a gust of wind hits an open fire it can hurry combustion along, heating things up. However, chilly winds also blow against the metal sides of your cooker, dissipating heat. Finally there are those rare, sooty instances in which a major blast of wind overwhelms struggling charcoal. Wind, rather than snow or ice, is a barbecuer's most wily opponent.

On a recent, pleasant evening I was out in the back yard, fixing supper. I poured a load of charcoal briquettes in my chimney-shaped starter, only to have the wind blow the fire out. I persisted, and the second time around I had ignition. When I dumped the glowing coals into the cooker, the wind made the fire burn brighter and hotter.

I went inside to fetch the fish. In addition to goose bumps, spring also tends to inspire a rash of resolutions to try new things. In this case, I was grilling some halibut.

You are not supposed to grill halibut; you are supposed to poach it. That is what the majority of cookbooks I consulted advised. "Halibut has tendency to dry out," wrote Mark Bittman in his reliable 1994 work Fish. "It is at its best," he said, "when poached, braised or steamed."

Similarly, the treatment that Eric Ripert and Maguy Le Coze recommended in Le Bernardin Cookbook, the 1998 collection of recipes drawn from their fabled New York restaurant, was poaching the halibut in court bouillon and serving it with vinaigrette sprinkled with fresh herbs. This dish, according to New York restaurant critic Gael Greene, was better than sex. While that was quite a recommendation, it sounded like more than I was ready to handle.

Moreover, it was something that happened indoors. I wanted to frolic in the springtime air. So instead of poaching the halibut on a stove, I grilled it over an open fire.

This halibut, like a lot of us this winter, had been frozen solid. Usually I buy fresh fish. But when I spotted these halibut fillets in the freezer at a supermarket (Trader Joe's in Towson), the halibut had traveled a long way from home. In this case, frozen was as fresh as I was going to get.

After the halibut thawed, I brushed it with a little olive oil and sprinkled it with pepper and sea salt. Before putting the fish on the grill, I first tossed on an onion. It was an ingredient in the sauce I was going to serve with the halibut. The sauce recipe called for using a chopped scallion, but I did not have any. Instead I used an ordinary onion and grilled it, which sweetened it.

I chopped the grilled onion and put it, along with Dijon mustard, parsley and lemon juice, in the sauce. The sauce recipe, which I pulled from Bittman's book, was supposed to go with grilled swordfish, but I decided, in the experimental spirit of spring, to try it on grilled halibut. It worked well. The fish was moist; the sauce, tart.

Shortly after I pulled the fish from the fire, the wind kicked up again. I put a coat on and went inside. My outdoor revel ended with a fine, indoor meal.

Grilled Halibut With Mustard Sauce

Serves 4 as a main course

1 to 2 pounds of halibut cut into fillets

olive oil to taste

salt and pepper to taste

Prepare a hot charcoal or wood fire or preheat gas grill. Grill should be hot and clean.

Brush fish lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill fish about 3 inches from source of heat. Turn when nicely browned, about 4 to 5 minutes, then cook an additional 4 to 5 minutes. The fish is done when a thin-bladed knife passes through it meeting no resistance, and no translucence remains.

Per serving: 368 calories; 20 grams protein; 30 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 5 grams carbohydrate; 0 grams fiber; 56 milligrams cholesterol; 371 milligrams sodium

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