Two weeks ago, when Connie & Ted's, Michael Cimarusti's newest seafood restaurant, was about to open its doors, all we could think about were clam cakes and fish fritters. The restaurant serves plenty of fritters—as well as stews, steamers, and shellfish platters the size of a six year old—but, this being a Cimarusti establishment, grilled fish, in all its perfect elegance, is also on the menu.
For Grilling Week, we wanted to get an expert to show us how to grill a whole fish on a home grill. Grilling a burger or steak is fairly straightforward, but grilling a whole fish is a skill most home cooks have yet to master. Here, now is a guide to grilling whole fish at home from Connie & Ted's chef de cuisine Sam Baxter.
➻ Consider the source. "We source our fish from mostly local purveyors, except that sometimes we also bring in some Alaskan King salmon."
➻ Pick the right fish. "We're working with black cod today, but in case that's hard to find, check Asian markets for Thai snapper. Whole Foods will usually also have Thai snapper."
➻ Clean it up. "Ask your fishmonger to clean and gut the fish for you. They can also scale it for you, and clean out the gills."
➻ Trim it. "Here and at Providence, we like to trim the fins off whole fish with kitchen shears. It just allows it to cook more evenly."
➻ Hot hot heat. "Pre-heat your grill. This is probably the most important step. For an at-home charcoal grill, pre-heat it for at least 45 minutes. You want it red hot. For a gas grill, preheat it for about 30 minutes. Make sure your grill is clean; use a wire grill brush to clean the grates."
➻ Consider wood, for flavor. "We use oak at Connie & Ted's because it burns long and hot, and adds a nice flavor, but almond wood or applewood are also nice."
➻ Graduate your heat. "Line up your hot briquets so that one side of your grill is extremely hot, the middle is medium hot, and the opposite end is cooler. This allows you to move your fish (or any food) around, depending on how long it needs to cook at what temperature."
➻ Oil? "We use mayonnaise instead of oil on our fish. It's basically oil, with a little bit of egg and vinegar, but it sticks to the fish skin a lot better because of the protein in the egg."
➻ Season well. "We use grey sea salt inside the cavity and outside on the skin. We also use piment d'espelette; it has a nice, complex flavor. But cayenne works well too."
➻ Start grilling. "Lay the fish down on the hottest part of the grill, seasoned side down. Then, season the other side of the fish. A lot of people like to put the lid down on the grill at this point; I'd say wait until you get a little bit of char. Then, you can put the lid down and let it smoke for a few minutes."
➻ On timing. "A one- to two- pound fish should take no more than 3-6 minutes per side, depending on the thickness of the fish and the temperature of the grill. We're working on a 550 grill here, so this fish will probably take about 10 minutes total, on the bone."
➻ Flip it, carefully. "If your grill isn't hot enough, the skin of the fish may stick. Also, if you try to flip it before it's ready. Patience is key."
➻ Butter makes it better. "We brush just a little bit of melted butter on the fish while it cooks. Not too much, though, or it will drip down and cause a fire."
➻ Make an herb brush. "We grow rosemary and thyme around the perimeter of Connie & Ted's. Sometimes we'll pick off branches and use them as brushes for our butter."
➻ How do you know it's done? "When you touch the fish, it will be tight, but also a little spongy. If it's overcooked, you'll end up putting your finger right through the flesh. It shouldn't be flakey so much as it it should feel meaty."
➻ A little rest? "A fish this size doesn't need to rest much once it's done cooking. Just for a few minutes, and then it can be filleted and served, or served straight from the grill."
➻ What should you serve it with? "Compound butter is nice, as a side for whole grilled fish. But the nice thing about home grilling is that you can do all of your sides right there on the grill too. Corn is in season right now, so throw some ears on the grill and call it dinner."