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June 2005
Fish Meets Grill

Some of my guy friends, who can't even boil an egg, claim to be grill masters. "Surely, it can't be that hard," I thought. Yet, my first attempt at grilling fish was a disaster. I was trying to keep it simple, and stick to a recipe that worked well under a broiler - my full-proof salmon teriyaki. I coated salmon fillets with the teriyaki-duck sauce mixture and placed them on the grill. After mastering broiling, poaching, and searing, I thought that grilling fish would be a piece of cake. I was so wrong. The grill marks stayed on the grill together with the surface of my salmon fillet. Desperate, I tried to rescue the remainder of our dinner, removing torn pieces of salmon from the clutches of the fire.

As all cooking disasters, this one made me only more determined to conquer grilling. Once I learned to avoid the sticking points, it became my favorite way to cook fish in the summer. Here are 10 grilling tips that will help you grill with confidence.

1. Choose the right fish type. The fish to avoid are flaky fillets that are sold skinless like cod, haddock, sole, flounder, sable, and tilapia. These fish are likely to fall through the grill. All other fish types can be used for grilling. Salmon, bluefish, stripped bass, swordfish, and small whole fish like red snapper, sea bream, trout, and branzino are particularly delicious grilled.

2. Preheat the grill to high. You should be able to hold your hand 4 inches above the grill no longer than 3-4 seconds.

3. Brush the grill with oil right before adding the fish. Pick up a wad of paper towel with tongs, dip it in oil, and brush the preheated grill right before adding the fish. Forget cooking sprays. Oil works even better since it can be applied directly to the grill and not only to the fish.

4. Do not put sweet or wet ingredients on fish before grilling unless grilling dense fish like swordfish and tuna - they don't stick no matter what you do. I find that the best way to prepare fish for the grill is also the simplest - salt, pepper, and a little oil. No lemon juice. It's best to squirt if over the fish after grilling.

5. Do not remove the skin when grilling. Not only does it keep your fish together, it turns crispy and incredibly delicious (not to mention good for you with all those omega-3 fatty acids). Dense fish like swordfish are an exception. They are so dense that they don't fall apart, and their skin is too tough to eat, so it's best to remove it.

6. Grill on the skin side first. If you will encounter any sticking, it will likely be on the flesh side, so grilling on the skin first allows you to keep your grill clean as long as possible. Another reason to grill on the skin side first is to prevent fillets from curling up. Fillets of some fish, like red snapper and stripped bass, have a tendency to do that, resulting in uneven grilling and rubbery skin. Once you place the fish on the grill, cover it, and let it be until you are ready to turn it. The more you tinker with the fish, the higher are the chances of tearing its skin.

7. Turn the fish with a fork. When I ran into the problem of torn and misplaced skin, I assumed that the fish stuck to the grill. What actually happened was that my spatula tore the skin as I tried to slip it under the fillet. To avoid this pitfall, slip the tins of a fork between the grill grates and gently push up on the fish. Do it in couple of places until the grill lets go of the fish. Do not try to lift the fish in the air and flip onto the other side. Instead turn it onto empty grilling space next to it, like turning a page.

To turn whole fish, take a fork in one hand and a spatula in another. Gently push up the fish with a fork in several places to dislodge it and let it drop back onto the spatula. This will help you push its weight onto the other side.

8. Err on the side of undercooking. Grilling can easily dry out the fish. Estimate 8 minutes per inch of thickness for steaks and fillets and 10 minutes for whole fish. Start checking for doneness 2 minutes before the estimated time. To check a fillet, pretend it's a book lying open on its face with the skin as its cover. Fold it in half with a fork as if folding a book. Don't worry, the skin will keep it together and no one will know it's "broken". As soon as the fillet breaks, remove it off the heat. Dense fish like swordfish do not break no matter how cooked they are. To test them for doneness, cut into them with a knife halfway and look inside - they should still be a tad translucent when you remove them off the heat even if you prefer your fish well-done. To check whole fish, dig into its thickest part with a fork. If the flesh looks opaque, the fish is done.

9. Remove the fish with a fork and a spatula. To remove the fish from the grill, dislodge it with a fork like you do when turning it. Then lift one side of fillet or whole fish barely off the grill, slip a spatula underneath, and lift the fish off the grill.

10. Glaze only after a brief sear on both sides. If you want to cover your fish with a glaze or a sauce, first grill it plain on very high heat for 2 minutes per side. Then turn down the heat to the lowest setting, brush with glaze and continue cooking on both sides until done.

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