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Italians have always understood how to cook whole fish. They recognize it as a simple food with a clean fresh and delicate taste. It is grilled and served with fresh herbs, vinaigrettes, relishes, pesto or excellent olive oil. The flavours are never masked, and the fish keeps its integrity. If you are grilling fish this summer, this is the right way to do it.

Knowing a good fishmonger is the secret to buying the freshest fish. Fish should always smell fresh; it should never have a “fishy” odour. If you are buying whole fish, look for ones that have clear eyes. Cloudiness or sunken eyes means that it isn’t fresh. If you press the fish with your finger, the indentation should spring right back. If it feels spongy, don’t buy it. Look under the gills, they should be bright red. If they are pink or brownish, the fish has been out of the water for too long. Fish fillets should look translucent and bright.


Getty Images/iStockphoto


Tips and techniques

If you are catching fish at the cottage and are eating it, scale the skin with a scaler or a spoon. Don’t remove head or tail, because the fish cooks and tastes better with it on.

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The general rule is to not use acids in fish marinades (if the marinade stays on for only 15 minutes you can include an acid). The acid will start to cook a finer-grained specimen. Use oil, herbs, spices, pesto and sauces. Put oil in a spray bottle and spray fish before going on the grill. It prevents sticking.

A grill basket is the best way to cook whole fish or fillets. It is easy to turn, and the flesh doesn’t ever adhere to the barbecue. Start with olive or vegetable oil in a spray pump. This is the best way to oil grills, fish baskets and the fish itself. If you do not have a grill basket make sure everything is very well oiled and that the grill is hot. Do not try to turn the fish until it easily releases.

Cook whole fish until the eye turns a white colour and the flesh is slightly pink. The fish keeps cooking as it is removed from the grill. Fish fillets should be cooked until opaque inside or until white juices begin to rise. It is acceptable to cook fish slightly rare, as the flavour is better. Do not cook until fish flakes, it is overcooked and has lost all its moisture by this point.

After cooking, to remove fillets from a whole round fish remove the dorsal fin on the back of the fish. Remove head. Removing the top layer of skin is optional. Slide a fish knife or pastry server under the fillet and gently remove to serving dish. Using a knife and fork, lift up the exposed bone and pull it off. Place the second fillet on a serving plate.

All sauces in the recipes below are interchangeable.



Grilled whole snapper with Sicilian vinaigrette

Serves 4

This dish also works well with striped bass or Mediterranean fish such as branzino or orata. Barramundi is also a winner on the grill. Remove the head only if you must – the fish will be more moist if you leave it on. Remove after cooking. I have added a Sicilian vinaigrette to this recipe, but a scattering of herbs and some good olive oil is also incredibly good.

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  • 4 small red snappers, about 1 lb. each, or 2 larger 2-pound snappers
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, chopped
  • Fresh oregano stalks, with leaves, if possible
  • Sicilian vinaigrette
  • 2 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons roasted red pepper, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Pat fish dry. Whisk together oil and garlic. Brush onto fish, both on skin and in cavity. Stuff fresh oregano stalks into cavity. Leave to marinate for 1 hour.

Combine oregano, garlic, pepper, balsamic vinegar, and lemon rind in bowl. Slowly whisk in oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Reserve.

Preheat grill to medium high. Brush grill with oil before placing fish on it or use a grill basket. Grill about 4 to 6 minutes per side for smaller fish, 7 to 10 minutes for larger, until flesh is white and moist, and it just comes away from the bone.

Place on platter and remove fillets from the bone if desired. Otherwise, serve one whole fish per person. Place on serving plates and drizzle over vinaigrette.

Brined shrimp with roasted garlic pesto

Serves 4 to 6

Brining shrimp gives them a texture and flavour that bursts in your mouth. The recipe is for a wet brine. Shrimp can be peeled or unpeeled depending on how you are cooking them, but if unpeeled split the shell down the back to allow the brine to soak in. As all the shrimp we get are frozen and defrosted before use, this is an essential step to get the best results. These are also good dipped into an aioli or shelled and served with a cocktail sauce.

  • 1/2 cup kosher salt
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 4 cups cold water
  • 2 pounds large shrimp

Dissolve salt in boiling water. Stir in cold water. Cool.

Cut down the back of shrimp through the shell but do not remove shell. Add shrimps to brine and brine for 45 minutes. Drain and rinse off.

Remove the shells (or not, it is personal preference). Grill shrimp on medium-high heat about 2 minutes per side or until pink and slightly curled.

Roasted garlic and chili pesto

Makes about 1 cup

  • 1 head roasted garlic
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, roasted and skinned
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh coriander
  • 2 tablespoons almonds, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup olive oil

Combine garlic, jalapeno pepper, coriander, almonds and lemon juice in food processor. Process until chunky. Slowly add olive oil through the feeder tube until mixture is thick and pureed.

Planked salmon with ginger mirin mayonnaise

Serves 4

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This is one of those rare dishes that tastes just as good cold as it does hot. If you decide to serve it cold, cook it for 3 minutes less because it cooks as it cools.

2 lb salmon fillet, skin on, preferably sustainable or organic

Marinade

  • ¼ cup mirin
  • ¼ cup rice wine
  • 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoon wasabi paste
  • 2 teaspoons ginger, chopped
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Ginger mirin mayonnaise
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons pickled ginger, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon mirin
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon wasabi paste

Soak a plank in water for 1 hour.

Combine mirin, rice wine, soy sauce, wasabi, ginger and sugar. Place salmon in a dish. Pour mixture over salmon and leave to marinate for 30 minutes.

Preheat grill to high. Place plank on hot grill and let smoke, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn over before placing fish on plank.

Remove salmon from marinade, reserving marinade, and season with salt and pepper. Place salmon on prepared plank, skin side down, and grill for 15 to 20 minutes or until white juices begin to appear. The salmon should be slightly pink in the centre.

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Combine mayonnaise along with pickled ginger and other ingredients. Slice salmon and serve with mayonnaise.

Grilled trout

Sami Siva/The Globe and Mail

Serves 4

Fine-fleshed fish with delicate flavour such as trout need simple preparations. The perfect grilled trout needs only salt, pepper and lemon to bring out its unique taste. A fish or vegetable basket is necessary to turn the fish; otherwise it will stick to the grill. Use small rainbow trout, one per person or 2 larger ones.

  • 4 whole trout, about 12 ounces each
  • 2 lemons, sliced
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 12 basil or mint leaves
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Place lemon slices, basil leaves, salt and pepper in trout cavity. Brush well with olive oil.

Brush fish basket with oil and place trout in it. Grill 4 to 5 minutes per side or until eyes are glazed and flesh turns pale in colour. Remove from grill basket gently to avoid breakage. Place on serving plate. Squeeze over lemon juice and serve.

Grilled halibut with tapenade relish

Serves 4

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Halibut is my favourite fish on the barbecue because it has lots of flavour and texture, but any firm-fleshed fish, such as grouper, swordfish, sablefish, tuna, or scallops, can be substituted.

  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil, finely chopped, or 2 teaspoons dried
  • 4 6-ounce halibut fillets

Mix pepper, olive oil and basil. Pour over fish and marinate for one hour.

Grill on high heat for 4 minutes on each side. The fish is done when little white bubbles appear on the flesh. Serve with tapenade relish.

Tapenade relish

  • 1/2 cup sundried tomatoes, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes or ½ cup roasted cherry tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup black olives, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic crushed
  • 1 tablespoon fresh basil, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

Chop tomatoes and all ingredients together until paste-like. Add more olive oil and balsamic vinegar to taste, if needed. Season with salt and pepper.

Salmon burger

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Serves 4

A superb burger for non-meat eaters. They are easiest to do in a non-stick pan. If you cook them on the grill, oil them well.

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  • 1 1/2 lb salmon fillet, skin removed
  • 1 tablespoon fresh gingerroot, grated
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons fresh coriander, chopped
  • Pinch cayenne
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Chop salmon coarsely and place in food processor. Stir in gingerroot, mustard, coriander, cayenne, salt and pepper.

Pulse ingredients until still slightly chunky. They should still have texture.

Form into about ¾-inch thick patties.

Brush oil on both sides of burger. Grill about 2 to 3 minutes per side or until juices are faintly pink. Remove from pan and serve on rye, sourdough or hamburger buns topped with tomato cucumber relish.

Tomato Cucumber Relish

Seed and dice two tomatoes and add one cup of diced cucumber. Combine with ¼ cup of chopped fresh basil, 2 tablespoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons chopped green onion. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Grilled shrimp with spicy green sauce

LARRY CROWE/The Associated Press

Serves 6

This is a great appetizer served on skewers with the sauce used as a dip, or a main course where the shrimp are tossed with the sauce and served over thin rice noodles or rice.

  • 1 poblano pepper, cut in half, seeded
  • 1 serrano pepper, cut in half, leave in seeds for a spicier finish
  • ½ cup chopped coriander
  • ½ cup chopped mint
  • 2 tablespoon lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, chopped
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil, divided
  • 1 lb (500 grams) shelled large shrimp (16 to 20 size per lb)
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat BBQ to high.

Grill the poblano and serrano peppers until blackened on all sides, about 6 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest until cool enough to handle. Scrape off the skin and chop peppers.

Combine coriander, mint, lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, garlic, ¼ cup of oil and grilled peppers in a food processor or mini chop. Puree. Reserve.

Reduce grill to medium. Toss shrimp with remaining oil and season with salt and pepper. Place on grill and cook, turning once, until pink, about 4 to 6 minutes.

Serve with spicy sauce.

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Grilled seafood

Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

Serves 6

When you can have six people at home for dinner this summer, this is a wonderful way to entertain with little effort. The seafood is accompanied by two interesting sauces for dipping. Use a grill basket if you have one, but the seafood can be cooked directly on the grill too. Vary the fish and the amounts according to preferences. Mussels can easily be cooked in a metal grill basket, but they are smokier if done directly on the grill. Serve a green salad and some grilled focaccia to make it a real feast. Harissa can be purchased at the supermarket or specialty food stores.

Marinade

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons garlic, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
  • Seafood
  • 1 ½ lbs jumbo scallops (under 10 size if possible)
  • 11/2 lb shrimp (21 to 25 size)
  • 1 lb (500 grams) salmon, sea bass or pickerel
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Vegetable oil to brush
  • 1-pound mussels
  • Lots of chopped herbs of choice

Combine marinade ingredients and pour over scallops, shrimp and fish. Season with salt and pepper and leave for 30 minutes.

Rinse mussels.

Preheat grill to medium high. Place fish on grill flesh side down and cook with lid closed for 2 minutes. Flip and cook with lid closed for 5 to 7 minutes more or until fish is just cooked. Place seafood on grill and grill about 3 minutes a side or until seafood is just cooked. Scallops may take an extra minute.

Place mussels on grill and as soon as they pop open, they are ready, about 3 minutes. Remove to platter. You may need to work in batches depending on the size of your grill.

Pile scallops and shrimp on a lettuce-lined platter. Cut fish into chunks. Add to platter. Scatter around mussels. Sprinkle everything with chopped herbs such as chives, parsley, tarragon and basil. Serve the sauces on the side.

Moroccan Spicy Herb Sauce

Makes 1 ½ cups

  • 1 cup canned chopped tomatoes
  • ¼ cup parsley, chopped
  • ¼ cup cilantro, chopped
  • 3 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons garlic, coarsely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 2 teaspoons harissa paste
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • Pinch ground cinnamon
  • Salt to taste

Combine ingredients in a food processor. Pulse machine until everything is finely chopped but not pasty. Reserve.

Aioli

Makes 2 cups

Aioli is the famous Provençal garlic-scented dip served with vegetables and seafood or meat of your choice. Originally, aioli was made with 2 cloves of garlic per person, but this makes an incendiary dip. I make a much more modestly flavoured one. If the oil is added too quickly, homemade mayonnaise will curdle or separate. If this happens, add one more egg yolk, then beat into the curdled mixture.

  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 ½ cups olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice or to taste

In a food processor or blender, add egg yolks and garlic. Process until combined. With machine running, slowly pour oil through feeder tube. The aioli should be quite thick. Add lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper.

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If you prefer to omit raw eggs because of health concerns, make this easy version:

1 cup mayonnaise, 2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic, 1 tablespoon lemon juice or to taste, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste and ¼ cup olive oil. Whisk together.

Mollusc medley with wasabi sauce

Serves 6

I had this dish once in Croatia where they slipped a slice of garlic into each shell as it opened. Remove the clams and mussels from the grill as soon as they pop open, but leave malingerers a few minutes longer just in case they open. This is finger-licking good as a first course.

Wasabi sauce
  • 1 tablespoon wasabi powder
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1/4 cup plain yogurt
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon pickled ginger, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 1/2 lb (750 grams) clams
  • 1 lb (500 grams) mussels
  • 1 lemon, cut in wedges

Combine wasabi powder and water in a small bowl. Stir in yogurt, mayonnaise, pickled ginger and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper.

Preheat grill on high.

Wash mussels and clams. Place clams on grill, cover and grill for 4 minutes. Add mussels to grill and continue to grill shellfish for 2 to 3 minutes, or until shells open. Discard any unopened mussels or clams.

Transfer shellfish to a bowl and serve with sauce. Garnish with lemon wedges and help yourselves.

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