Memorial Day weekend is the official start of barbecue season, when the grills are cleaned, fuel is stocked and sweet-smelling smoke encircles the house. It is also the time when we see more local fish lined up on ice at our fish market.
In the early days of my restaurant, flounder fillets were always available, ready to cook, but the other fish such as weakfish, bluefish, blackfish and bass you had to buy whole and fillet yourself. Now virtually everything is sold boned and ready to cook, but the local fish markets still sell a wide selection of whole fish.
Are there any advantages to buying the whole fish? The answer is a qualified yes. The whole fish is going to be the freshest short of catching it yourself; if you fillet the whole fish yourself, you will be able to use the head and rack to make a flavorful stock, and grilling the fish whole or butterflied makes a beautiful presentation. You also save a little money. The down side is that processing whole fish is messy, sometimes difficult, and cooking them whole often results in the skin sticking to the grill and a finished product with lots of bones to work around.
However you buy your fish, grilling it requires a clean grill that is hot and well oiled. You will also need a thin, metal fish spatula and a set of tongs.
Flounder Grilled in Cabbage Leaves
Purchase 2 whole flounder and fillet them into 8 small fillets, reserving the heads and racks.
Remove the core from 1 head of Savoy cabbage, then peel off the outer leaves. Blanch these leaves by plunging them in boiling water for about 2 minutes. You should have 8 large leaves or a few more small ones. Drain the leaves and set aside.
Heat a large sauté pan and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the fish heads and racks and cook until they are well browned, about 15 minutes. Add 2 cups white wine, 2 tablespoons butter and 3 sprigs of fresh thyme. Cook at medium heat until the wine is reduced by half. Strain into a clean saucepan and set aside.
Lay out a cabbage leaf on a cutting board and brush with olive oil. Place a small fish fillet on the cabbage along with 1 sprig of thyme, 1/4 teaspoon lemon zest, a squeeze of lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Fold over the cabbage leaf to cover the fish and secure with a toothpick. Repeat with all 8 fillets of flounder.
Prepare a charcoal grill and wait until the coals are turning white. Rub the grill with an oil-soaked paper towel and brush the cabbage packages with oil. Place them on the grill and cook for about 3 minutes per side.
Meanwhile, add 12 littleneck clams to the fish broth in the saucepan, cover and bring to a boil. As the clams open, remove them and set aside.
Place the cooked fish on a platter and surround it with the clams. Swirl 2 tablespoons cold butter into the sauce and pour some of it over the fish, serving the rest on the side.
Accompany the fish with warm potato salad and green beans if desired.
Note: This recipe was adapted from a New York Times recipe by Mark Bittman.
Grilled Stuffed Porgy
Have 4 whole porgies gutted and scaled, and cut them into fillets. You will end up with 8 fillets. Remove the pin bones with needle-nose pliers.
To make the stuffing, peel and de-vein 8 medium shrimp and cut them into small pieces. Heat a sauté pan and add 2 tablespoons butter. Stir in 1/2 cup minced green onion and 1/2 cup finely diced celery. Add the chopped shrimp and a teaspoon of fresh thyme along with salt and pepper to taste. Continue cooking and add 1/4 cup dry sherry. Let this reduce by half and remove the pan from the heat.
Stir in 1/4 cup panko crumbs and 2 tablespoons chopped parsley. Transfer the stuffing to a bowl and cool in the refrigerator.
Lay the porgy fillets out on a cutting board, skin side down. Place about 2 tablespoons of the stuffing on 4 of the fillets. Place another fillet on top of each and press them together. Wrap the stuffed porgy with pancetta, about 3 thin slices each. Tie the packages together with butcher’s twine or string.
At service time, brush the packages with olive oil and grill over medium-hot coals until brown, about 5 minutes per side. Remove and cut off the strings. Carefully cut them into thick slices with a serrated knife and serve with lemon.
Grilled Whole Black Sea Bass
Have a whole black sea bass gutted and scaled and the gills removed.
Place 4 sprigs of oregano in the cavity along with sliced lemon and coarse sea salt and pepper to taste. Brush the outside of the fish with olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt and pepper.
Prepare a relish to accompany the grilled fish by combining 1 cup each of red and yellow grape tomatoes cut in half, 2 tablespoons minced shallots, 1 teaspoon minced garlic, 1/4 cup chopped Kalamata olives, 2 tablespoons minced capers, 4 chopped anchovy fillets, 1/4 cup olive oil and 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar. Season with 2 tablespoons chopped oregano, 1/2 teaspoon pepper and a few drops of Tabasco sauce.
Clean your grill rack with a wire brush and then rub it down with vegetable oil. Let it reach a hot temperature, brush the bass liberally with oil and place it over the hot coals.
Let it cook for about 10 minutes before turning with a thin, metal fish spatula. Cook another 5 minutes and check for doneness by inserting a sharp knife into the flesh. If it flakes easily, the fish is cooked.
Carefully remove the fish to a platter and serve with the tomato relish alongside.
Soak a cedar plank or shingle in water for 2 hours.
Prepare a marinade by combining 1/4 cup canola oil, 1 tablespoon sesame oil, 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar, 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1 tablespoon grated ginger, 2 teaspoons minced garlic and 3 minced scallions.
Place four 6-ounce fillets of salmon (either wild or naturally raised) in a casserole and pour the marinade over them about 2 hours before service.
Trim 1 bunch of asparagus, 1 bunch of baby carrots and 1 bunch of spring onions. Brush them with canola oil and season with salt and pepper. Cut 2 tomatoes in half and brush with oil.
When the char-grill is hot, place a cedar plank on the grill and cook on each side for 3 minutes. Brush liberally with oil and place the fish and the vegetables on the board. Cover and cook at about 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until the fish just turns opaque.
Serve with jasmine or basmati rice.
Note: The word “fillet”means a thin piece of meat or fish detached from the bone. The French version of this word is “filet.” So we have a “filet of sole” but a “fillet of flounder.” The words are pretty much used interchangeably.
John Ross, chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. For contact information, go to his website, www.chef-johnross.com.