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How to Grill A Fish

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By Malcolm Jolley

Donna Dooher is teaching me how to grill a fish. It's a beautiful summer day, and I've arrived at The Cookworks, the popular cooking school she runs next to her restaurant, Mildred Pierce. I am carrying a well chilled bottle of Chablis and no small amount of trepidation. It's one thing to hang out with chefs, or see them at their restaurants and eat their food. It's something else entirely to have them watch you cook, especially if it's something you really don't know how to do.

I have held a spatula in front of a barbecue since I was a little kid and am pretty comfortable grilling any piece of meat. Like most men, I know that grilling (at least at home) isn't too hard. We just pretend it is and the women in our lives let us because it gives us something to do for 10 minutes as they assemble the rest of a summer meal. After all, it really is just "flipping burgers". But there's one thing that, I didn't know how to do: grill a fish, and this terrible secret shamed me thoroughly. For years - especially at lunch - I have always ordered the grilled fish, partly because it's the best way to present a fresh specimen but also partly because it fit into the must -order category of "things you don't get at home". When a friend gave me a trout he had caught hours before as a present and my only recourse was the frying pan the baking tray, I became determined to learn how to grill it.

Donna greets me in the large studio that serves as The Cookwork's main teaching area. There on a platter are two whole red snappers and a very rough mis en place of sea salt, pepper, good quality extra virgin olive oil, lemon and a bunch parsley and thyme. The fish have been gutted and finned, but when we check the gills are still there. This is good, as the colour of the gills is one of the ways you can tell the freshness of the fish, Donna explains. More and more suppliers are removing them, which she thinks is, well, fishy. But these two happy fish look fresh and ready to be prepped.

The preparation is wonderfully simple: first we make a series of semi-circular cuts (scores) into the sides of the fish. We cut through the fillet to the bone. Whole fish have lots of pin bones, Donna explains, so the really need to be cooked right through so the flesh literally falls off the bone at the table. The scores also helps to define portions in larger fish. I am less impressed with this last piece of information since I intend to eat all of my fish (which, later, I do).

Despite some rather undignified hacking on my part, both the fish look reasonably similar and are now ready to be seasoned with the salt, pepper, a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil. The herbs are more or less scrunched up and shoved into the gut cavities of the fish Jamie Oliver style. So far so good. This really couldn't be more simple.

Meanwhile Donna's gone to light up her grill, a big Weber with three rows of propane jets. When I come out to meet her she's busily scraping the grill clean wit a wire brush. When the grill is very clean, she greases lightly with some cooking oil. Between this and the flavourful olive oil drizzled on the fish, we should be bale to avoid any sticking of the skin.

Donna is aiming to get her grill up to somewhere roughly between 400 and 425F which, I remark, is about the temperature I generally use to roast a fish. That's right, she says, and it helps t think that or operation is really just roasting without the pan.

Onto the grill go the fishies, Donna closes the lid and I pour two glasses of the Chablis. I ask if, beyond these basics, there are any tricks? A big spatula helps, or a fish basket if the fish is small and very delicate. After a few minutes we can hear a few snaps, crackle sand pops and smell the pepper and smoke. Now for the hard part: standing around drinking a glass of wine, chatting while we wait for the first side to be done.

Donna figures the fish will take about 15 minutes, so apart from the occasional check at the temperature gauge, to make sure we're in or 400 to 425 range, there's little else to do. I suppose if one isn't grilling a fish with a professional chef next to her fully staffed restaurant where a linen clothed table is waiting for one on the patio, one could take the next five to ten minutes the fish will cook to set the table or something. We don't have to that, so we chat about cooking times and Donna's experience as an author and food editor. Cooking times will vary, she explains, depending on the size of the fish. Good thing, I retort, that this is for Gremolata, where we play it pretty loose. The main thing, as far as I can tell, is to make an occasional visual inspection after about five minutes just to make sure make sure nothing's on fire.

After about 10 minutes we flip the fish. How do we know it's time? Well, we check the skin on the grill and looks nicely brown, a little charred… I dunno… we kind of just know. The fish is still going to cook on the other side, so there's not a lot of stress involved at this juncture. In fact the only stress was right at the moment of flipping. The flesh at the very tail of my fish is narrow and has cooked a little dry (no biggie, there's lots on the fillet) so my tail fell off when I flipped mine. Luckily I was able to do more or less put all together and still looked good on the plate.

As we approach the 15 minute mark, we start checking to see if they're close to being done. The scoring from before gives us the added advantage of being able to see into the flesh. This is sort of liking cutting into your steak to check if it's done, but without the unappealing mangling of meat. Meanwhile, Donna has put the two halved lemons we used to squeeze onto the fishies before on the grill, and they have been caramelising for about 10 minutes. When the fish is done, we lift it onto plates and place the lemons beside, ready to be squeezed, according to taste. The fish rest for a few minutes while we get ourselves to the table, where we accompany our snapper with a simple salad of mixed greens and some bread. More olive oil is drizzled on the fish. It's so good I want to cry. The next day I go straight to the fishmonger's and buy a couple of whole branzini.


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