Bravo for Branzino!

Don’t let the dead eyes fool ya, this fish is delightful!

For some reason people are intimidated by grilling fish. Actually I get it: fish can be fragile, can stick to the grill grate, and will totally fall apart if you don’t remember four very simple tips.

1) Oil both your grill and your fish very well. Not dripping with oil, mind you, but evenly coated. I use Pam to spray the grill and rub olive oil on the surface of the fish.

2) Make sure the grill is very, very hot. When the fish hits the grate it will stick immediately. But if it’s hot the skin or flesh will create a crust very quickly and will release by itself when it’s ready.

3) If you marinate the fish (and by all means do) you must dry the fish very well, wiping off as much excess moisture as you can. And then lightly oil the fish prior to grilling. This is especially critical when dealing with sugary marinades like teriyaki and bbq and miso. Moisture equals stickage.

4) Don’t mess with it! As with anything you grill, it’s important for the first side you grill to get lightly charred and dry. It should release with a little gentle prodding. Use a thin metal spatula to assist.

These tips are very helpful, but are hardly gospel. The size of your grill grate can affect the outcome as well. I find that thicker grate wires are much better for grilling fish than the thin wires you find on less expensive Weber-style dome grills. But with either you can achieve good results. Pay attention to these tips, be patient, have confidence, and you’ll be a fish-grilling pro in no time!

Impeccably fresh branzino.

Branzino is one of my favorite fish. The white flesh is mild and sweet, the edible skin is thin and crisps nicely. It’s basically a Mediterranean seabass, not to be confused with Chilean seabass which is not a bass at all! In French it’s called lou de mer and in Southern Italy it’s called spigola, but the Northern Italian moniker is branzino, the name I prefer. Apparently they can grow up to three feet, but when I’ve eaten them in Europe or bought them here in the States they are about a foot long, which is a good size for the grill.

You can substitute striped bass or trout or red snapper or pretty much any other small, whole, white-fleshed fish. Just be sure your fish is fresh. When you shop for fish make sure the eyes are clear and firm-looking, the fish itself looks glossy, and that it exhibits no smell except that of clean seawater. If it smells “fishy” skip it. Unless you’re practiced at cleaning fish, have your fishmonger gut and scale the fish for you.

Gill-shaped cuts in the sides of the fish help it cook faster and make it easier to serve.

In prepping the fish for the grill, I first remove all the fins with a sharp pair of kitchen scissors. I trim the tail fin, the pectoral fins (on the side), the spiny and soft dorsal fins (top), and the fins along the bottom, the pelvic and anal (yep, near the ass) fins. After trimming the fins I make three or four crescent or gill-shaped cuts in the flesh. Take a sharp knife and, starting at the top of the fish, cut at a shallow angle with a swiveling motion down through the meat. Your knife will contact the vertebrae column; don’t cut through that but use it as guide to tell you when to stop cutting deeper. These cuts serve two purposes: they speed up the cooking process and make it easier to scoop out nicely portioned chunks of fish when serving.

My pretties are ready for the grill!

For seasoning the fish I first stuff the cavity with a couple of slices of lemon and a few basil leaves. Add whatever herbs you wish — bay leaves, cilantro, basil, and marjoram work well here. Maybe a crushed glove of garlic or a slice or two of ginger would be nice. Finally, right before grilling I’ll oil the fish and then season vigorously with salt and pepper; some will fall off so season more than you think you’ll need.

High heat gives you a great, crispy skin!

Over moderately high heat (on an oiled grate, remember) grill the first side of the fish for about eight to ten minutes.  Gently flip with a couple of spatulas and grill the other side. You can close the grill at this point for about six or eight minutes to finish cooking all the way through. Remove fish gently from the grill and place on a platter.

I like to serve grilled fish like this with a rice pilaf, a simple vegetable, and a nice, refreshing salad.

Happy grilling!

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