"A fillet is easy to overcook, but you have more latitude with whole fish, which are big, delicious, juicy, and sloppy," says Ryan Prewitt, the recent recipient of a James Beard Award for best chef in the South. But anyone who has ever grilled fish knows it's not so easy to keep the meat juicy and the skin from burning. The usual advice is to stuff the fish with lemon slices, use a grill basket, sear over high heat, and then remove the fish to a cooler zone. Prewitt's approach is simpler and tastier.
Dry the Skin
"The most important tool we have in the restaurant is a fan," Prewitt says. He uses it to dry the fish's skin before cooking because dry skin sticks less and browns better. Pat the fish with paper towels and place it on a rack. Then aim a fan at it until the shiny skin takes on a dull, matte finish that's dry to the touch. This usually takes about a half hour.
Oil It Up
Clean, hot grates and oil are key to keeping the fish from sticking to the grill and helping it brown. Scrape your grates as clean as possible with a grill brush, and rub with oil just before cooking. As for the fish itself, "You want to really oil it up aggressively," Prewitt says.
Don't Stuff, Sauce
Many whole-fish recipes call for stuffing the fish with aromatics to gently infuse the flesh. Prewitt sticks with just salt, pepper, and smoke to concentrate the fish's natural flavor. Then he'll contrast that with something powerfully flavorful, like this salsa verde.
Grilled Whole Fish with Salsa Verde (Serves 2–4, with leftover salsa)
- 1 whole fish, 3–4 lbs, such as striped bass, red snapper, or redfish
- olive oil, as needed
- salt and pepper, to taste
For the salsa verde:
- 2 anchovy fillets, rinsed
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 shallot, minced
- ½ cup parsley, chopped
- ½ cup mint, chopped
- ½ cup cilantro, chopped
- ½ cup green onions, sliced
- 1 lemon, zested and juiced
- 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
- ½ cup red wine vinegar
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp black pepper
- 1 tsp mild chili flakes
- ¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Following the instructions above, pat the fish with paper towels and place in front of a fan for about 30 minutes, until dry to the touch. Build a medium-heat fire, and let it burn down to a level, even coal bed. (If you're using gas, preheat the grate and then turn down to medium.)
Cut three slashes across each side of the fish, getting down to the bone, then generously rub it with oil and season aggressively with salt and pepper.
Set the fish on the grill, and flip it every 8 minutes or so. You want the skin to be crisp but not burnt. It should be done in about 30 minutes; check the meat under the neck, behind the gills, by poking with your finger. When it barely separates, the fish is done.
While the fish is cooking, make the salsa. Finely chop and mash the anchovies and garlic. Add them and all other ingredients except the olive oil to a bowl, and stir. Drizzle in the oil while stirring, and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.