Fourth of July was last week, so we’re deep into grilling season. Everywhere you look are recipes for burgers, hot dogs, steaks, and chicken. But as the weather gets and stays hotter, sometimes we don’t feel like eating such heavy meals. Also, as the summer progresses, we’ll see more and more beautiful, locally-grown produce to build meals around. But for now, add some grilled fish to your menus. It’s delicious, fast, and easy.
All kinds of fish can be grilled, but this high heat technique works best with meatier fish such as salmon, halibut, and mahi mahi, and fish with the skin on, including whole fish. Delicate fish such as flounder or sole and fish that falls apart, such as cod, do better in a skillet or on a baking sheet.
Even heavier fish, though, need a little extra TLC on the grill. You can use a grilling basket or a cast iron skillet, but one of my favorite ways to grill fish is on a wood plank, usually cedar.
A couple of weeks ago, I travelled east for the Fancy Food Show in New York and Kosherpalooza in New Jersey. Of course, I stopped at the Wegmans store where I used to work to visit with some of my colleagues and friends and to shop for a few items that are hard to find here in Cincinnati, such as parve whole wheat breadcrumbs and my favorite yellow fin canned tuna in water.
I was so happy to find Chef Cindy still working in the store; she’s close to retirement, so I wasn’t sure if she would still be there. Chef Cindy is an institution at the Princeton Wegmans. Most other stores don’t have anyone like her. She is classically trained and taught at the prestigious William and Mary culinary program in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Chef Cindy develops original recipes using Wegmans’ products to help customers put quick, easy meals on their tables. For example, she “doctors” brownie and cake mixes with beer or wine to create more elevated desserts. She often uses prepared dressings, marinades, and sauces in her recipes to demonstrate how to use them.
But Chef Cindy’s specialty is fish and seafood. The salmon recipe at the end of this column is so popular that Wegman’s sells it ready to go, with the fish on a plank and the brown sugar mixture in a cup. I wonder if Wegmans keeps track of how many of these set-ups they have sold. Over the years, I’m sure it adds up to thousands of pounds of fish.
Planked Salmon: When cooking on wood, you must soak the plank in water to keep it from burning up on the grill. A well-soaked plank will smolder, imparting a luscious smoky flavor to the fish. Soak it in cold water for at least a couple of hours or overnight. Make sure you weigh the plank down with a large can, to keep it submerged.
Chef Cindy’s original recipe calls for a couple of specific Wegmans-brand products, which we obviously can’t get here. For each quarter cup of brown sugar, she uses two tablespoons of Wegman’s Steak Seasoning, but you can substitute McCormick Grill Mates Montreal Steak Seasoning (hechshered OU parve). She also adds Wegmans flagship product, Basting Oil, to the brown sugar mixture, using enough to make it wet and hold together. Basting, or dipping, oil is usually extra virgin olive oil seasoned with herbs. You can make your own by adding dried Italian seasoning to oil, but you can also find many brands of seasoned oil that are kosher.
Whole Herb Stuffed Fish: Another way to prepare fish for the grill is to stuff the cavity of a whole fish with citrus slices and fresh herbs. Season the cavity with salt and pepper, then slide in a couple of slices of lemon, lime, orange, or grapefruit. Use sprigs of any whole herbs you like. Rosemary and tarragon, which has a light, licorice flavor, go beautifully with orange. Anything goes with lemon. You can use any herbs you like: basil, parsley, thyme, oregano, sage, or even mint, which is great with lime.
If you’re not using a fish basket for the grill, use a couple pieces of kitchen twine soaked in water to hold the fish together. Rub the outside of the fish with a little oil to keep it from sticking to the grill.
Some people don’t like to work with whole fish, especially if it still has its head. But clear, unclouded eyes are one way to tell that fish is super fresh. If you don’t like your meal looking back at you, remove the head before cooking, cutting just behind the collar or have your fish monger do it for you.
Whole fish also contains bones, specifically the backbone of the fish. Once the fish is cooked, push it open to expose the bone, use a spoon to lift it away from the flesh, and remove it before serving. Pay attention as you eat so you don’t swallow any small bones, which can get unpleasantly stuck in your throat. It’s not as dangerous as it sounds, and the bones should be clearly visible.
Fish Steaks: Most of us usually buy fish filets, but if a fish is cut from top to bottom, through the backbone, it creates a “steak” — a horseshoe shaped piece wrapped in skin. Larger fish, such as salmon and halibut, are often cut this way specifically for the grill. The shape holds the fish together as it grills, so you can place it directly on the grill grate. Always oil either the grate or the fish to prevent sticking.
Planked Brown Sugar Salmon
Serves 4 to 8 depending on size of the fish and the rest of the menu
4 ounces is a typical serving
Adapted from Chef Cindy, Princeton Wegmans
1 salmon side, about 2-3 LBs, with the skin on
½ C brown sugar
2 TBSP pepper-based steak seasoning
About 1 TBSP seasoned oil
Zest and juice of 1 lime
2 garlic cloves, minced
Extra limes, cut into wedges for serving
1. Soak plank in cold water at least 2 hours or overnight. Weight plank down with large heavy can to keep submerged.
2. Place salmon on plank, skin side down. Cut into serving size pieces but keep them side by side. (Cutting before cooking makes a nicer presentation.)
3. Mix brown sugar, steak seasoning, oil, zest, lime juice, & garlic together.
4. Season fish with salt. Place brown sugar mixture on top of fish, spreading it around and patting it down so it stays on top.
5. Place plank on hot grill. When it starts smoking, reduce heat to medium, and cook for 20 to 25 minutes, or until internal temperature is 135 degrees.
Place entire plank on a large platter or trivet. Serve garnished with lime wedges.