Mother Earth Living

A Seafood Grill

By Terri Pischoff Wuerthner
August/September 1994
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Charcoal adds to the flavor of this tangy Thai Swordfish in Lemongrass-Sesame Sauce and an assortment of summer vegetables.

Fire up your grill and your ­appetite this summer with a tempting array of fresh seafood. Paired with versatile sauces, accompaniments, and marinades, fish can be a healthy, tasty addition to the repertoire of the outdoor cook.

The recipes on page 57 include a shellfish appetizer that cooks over coals as they heat up for the main attraction. For an entrée, choose from cod dressed in pesto, trout stuffed with rosemary, swordfish swimming in the flavors of Thailand, and orange roughy fillets marinated in a tangy cilantro-lime sauce. Try grilling vegetables and parboiled potatoes, and you’ve got an entire party meal off one batch of glowing coals.

These recipes are designed to be easy, fast, and flexible and to leave room for the creativity of the barbecue cook. The sauces and marinades may be used with different types of fish to match your mood or what’s available at the fish counter. (See below for tips on making substitutions in these and other recipes.) Cooking times vary according to the type and amount of charcoal used, the heat of the coals, and the distance from the grill to the coals, as well as the thickness of the fish. The recipes, which allow four ounces of fish for each person, can easily be increased to fit the size of your family or your appetite.

Seafood doesn’t need to be tenderized, but marinating it enhances the flavor. For easy cleanup, use a zip-style plastic bag to hold the fish and marinade. Refrigerate for 15 to 30 minutes. Longer than that and the flavor of the marinade may overwhelm that of the fish; the acid in the marinade also may begin to “cook” the flesh.

Seafood needs only a few minutes’ cooking time, so watch it carefully. Place the fish directly on the grill, on a sheet of foil, or on a grill basket designed for cooking seafood and small pieces of food. Have the grill very clean to minimize sticking. Coat the rack with cooking spray, then allow to heat over coals for a few minutes before adding food, or brush the hot grill with oil. Place the grill about six inches from the fire grate. Baste fish with a bit of marinade before turning if it seems dry.

Recipes:

The recipes are designed to be easy, fast, and flexible and to leave room for the creativity of the barbecue cook.

  1. Shellfish with Aioli
  2. Aioli of Basil and Sun-Dried Tomatoes 
  3. Trout Stuffed with Fresh Rosemary 
  4. Orange Roughy in Cilantro-Lime Sauce 
  5. Barbecued Cod with Walnut-Herb Pesto 
  6. Thai Swordfish in Lemongrass-Sesame Sauce 

Grills and fuel

Gas barbecues, which contain a bed of volcanic rock to hold the heat, and electric barbecues are the easiest grills to set up and clean up, and they give you the best temperature control. However, some people feel that they aren’t really barbecuing unless they have the aroma and flavor of burning charcoal from a wood- or charcoal-fired grill.

Traditional charcoal-fueled grills are heated with either lump hardwood charcoal or charcoal briquettes. The temperature of these grills is not easily controlled, and the type of fuel used affects the cooking time.

Lump hardwood charcoal heats up quickly and is ready for use within 20 to 25 minutes, but it burns faster and hotter than briquettes (mesquite hardwood charcoal burns even hotter than most). This is not a problem when grilling seafood, which cooks quickly, but when cooking other foods you may need to replenish the coals after 30 to 40 minutes of cooking. Briquettes, pressed chunks of pulverized charcoal, take about 40 minutes to heat up but burn much longer than lump hardwood charcoal.

Only two-thirds as much lump hardwood charcoal is needed as charcoal briquettes to produce the same amount of heat. Break up and spread out large chunks of lump hardwood charcoal to produce an even heat, and stand back when cooking as it sends out sparks.

Heat

Open the air vents in the bottom of the barbecue. To light a charcoal fire, mound charcoal in a pyramid, douse with starter fluid, and light, or use an electric starter for about 10 minutes. I prefer to use an electric starter, as it seems safer and smells better; I don’t have to worry about food tasting like starter fluid.

Allow the charcoal to burn, uncovered, until coated lightly with gray ash. Some black spots will remain, especially on the coals around the edge of the pyramid, and there may be some flames at first. After 30 to 45 minutes, spread the coals out to an area slightly wider than the area to be covered by the food.

The hottest coals have a thin coat of white ash and are perfect for searing foods to keep the juices in. Those glowing red-orange through a fairly thick coat of white ash are medium coals—just right for cooking fish. Coals at a low heat have a thick coat of white ash; they are appropriate for foods such as poultry that take a long time to cook.

You can increase the heat somewhat by tapping the coals to knock off the white ash, moving them closer together, lowering the grill rack, covering with the lid, or adding more briquettes to the hot coals (the new ones will be hot in about 20 minutes).

The heat of the coals may be decreased by moving them farther apart, allowing them to burn and cool down before placing the food on the grill, raising the grill, partially closing the bottom vents, moving the food to the outer edge of the grill, or leaving the lid off.

Smoky flavor

Aromatic wood, in the form of chunks or chips, will add a wonderful flavor to food. Square chunks 2 to 3 inches across may be burned alone or with the coals. Chips, which are smaller, are best for gas grills, as they tend to spark when burned with coals.

Presoaking the wood chunks or chips for an hour or so prolongs their burning time but is not necessary. Add them about five minutes before the coals are the correct temperature for the food you are going to cook. Mesquite and alder are the best complements for fish, as they are more subtle than some other woods such as hickory and oak. Fish picks up more flavor from these woods when they are added to lump hardwood charcoal than when added to briquettes. Closing the lid and leaving the vents open increase the smoked flavor.

Dried herb branches or stalks may also be soaked in water, drained, and put on the hot coals. I especially like to use branches of rosemary or lemon thyme to add a subtle flavor that complements the herbs and acid used in a marinade.

Cleanup

The heat of the barbecue will continue after the food has been removed, and this will help burn off food particles that have stuck to the grill. While the barbecue is still warm, scrape off any remaining food with a stiff brush. To remove crusted-on food, soak the grill in a solution of water and trisodium phosphate (or TSP, available in hardware stores) until food softens, then scrub.

Terri Wuerthner lives in Santa Rosa, California, and gets her seafood fresh from Bodega Bay. She is a food writer and recipe developer and is currently at work on her second cookbook.


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