Try these simple methods for barbecuing fish

  • By Jan Roberts-Dominguez / Herald Columnist
  • Tuesday, July 18, 2006 9:00pm
  • Life

We’ve all been told at one time or another how to tell if that fish you’re looking at in the fish market is worthy of your time and attention.

The whole ones have clear, bright and bulging eyes for starters (not cloudy and sunken), pinkish-red gills (not gray or brownish or greenish), shiny skin and unfaded color, and flesh that bounces back from a healthy nudge.

Likewise, the flesh of fillets and steaks should be moist and firm, with no sign of browning at the edges.

Above all else, there should be no “fishy” odor.

The looking and sniffing are easy to pull off – even at two paces back from the counter. But who among us feels comfortable poking and prodding the product?

So my true directive for obtaining fresh fish is to know and trust the fish seller. I’ve developed a solid relationship with mine.

He appreciates just how picky and full of expectations I am. And because he cares about my business, he will gently steer me clear of the tired old sole I came in for and introduce me to a perky piece of tilapia, tuna or turbot.

The actual cooking part of fish cookery is undaunting once you realize that there are only seven basic techniques: baking, barbecuing, broiling, poaching, pan-frying, deep-frying and oven-frying.

For summer meals, my top two favorite methods are baking and barbecuing, so in the interest of space, I’m going to concentrate on them.

Baking covers a wide range of preparations, from simple and low-in-calories to fancy and rich.

Baked fish doesn’t need to be coated in anything before baking, nor does it need to be immersed in liquid. Plus, the method of baking adapts to most any size, shape or kind of fish, from fillets, steaks, and chunks to small or large whole fish.

As far as temperature goes, a high temperature, about 425 degrees, means the fish will cook faster and stay moister.

Barbecuing is just as simple and basic, with the added bonus of tantalizing aromas of smoky charcoal and sizzling fish mingling with the fresh, summer air. It’s wonderful just butter-basted, but can be even more fabulous when paired up with marinades, rubs and flavorful bastes.

Because the smoke brings an additional layer of flavor to the fish, it’s best to use a full-flavored and moderately fatty fish, such as salmon, trout, mackerel, tuna and bluefish when cooking directly over coals. Halibut is also lovely on the grill, even though it has a relatively mild flavor.

For basic barbecue technique for large fillets, follow the directions below in Harry’s barbecued salmon.

If you plan to do a lot of barbecuing over coals or a gas burner, consider investing in a hinged wire broiler, which makes the turning of the fish risk-free.

I start with a foil pan so that during cooking, the butter-soy mixture I brush on the fillets caramelizes along with the onions as it cooks around the fish, creating a rich and flavorful sauce to drizzle over the final dish.

1/2cup melted butter

Juice of one lemon

2tablespoons Kikkoman’s Tempura Sauce

2pounds of wild salmon fillet

1-2Walla Walla Sweet onions, peeled and sliced into rings

Combine the butter, lemon juice and tempura sauce. Create a foil pan out of heavy duty aluminum foil that is at least 3 to 4 inches larger in all directions than the fillet. Drizzle in a few tablespoons of the sauce, then place the fillet on top, skin side down. Drizzle on some more of the butter mixture, then layer on the onions and green garlic (arranging some of them around the edge of the fish), and drizzle on a bit more sauce) Grill over medium-hot coals or gas burners (cook at about 375 degrees so that the butter doesn’t scorch during cooking), basting with the sauce several times. Keep the lid on the grill when not basting the fish. Fish is done when the flesh is just flaking when gently prodded with a fork. Figure on a cooking time of about 10 minutes per inch (measured at thickest part of the fillet).

Note: if you can’t find the Kikkoman’s Tempura Sauce, then use your favorite soy sauce, along with a splash of Worcestershire sauce and about 1/2 teaspoon of sugar.

3tablespoons butter

3tablespoons pinot gris (or other dry white wine)

3tablespoons fresh lemon juice

21/2tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1/2clove garlic, finely minced

1-1 1/2 pounds of fish fillets or steaks

1/2cup thinly sliced fresh mushrooms

1/4cup finely chopped sweet onion (such as Walla Walla), or green onions

Create a foil pan for the fish that is large enough to surround everything and partially enclose the top. Spread open the foil and place the fish in the center (if the fillets have skin on one side, place them skin-side down). Arrange the mushrooms and onions around and over the fish.

In a small pot or a microwave-proof bowl, combine the butter with the wine, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, and garlic. Gently heat on burner or in microwave oven just until the butter melts. Let it cool slightly. Pour the mixture over and around the fish. Snuggle the foil up and around the fish, leaving the top open so the fish will poach but not steam over the grill (or in the oven). Cook over hot coals (or in a 375 degree oven) until the fish is just cooked through, which will take about 10 to 14 minutes, depending on how thick the fish is.

Seasoning: Place fish fillets or steaks in the foil pan, then pour on about 1/3 cup of Pinot Gris, the juice from half a lemon, 1 tablespoon of butter broken into about 5 pieces, a sprinkling of salt, pepper, and Old Bay Seasoning, and about 1 tablespoon of fresh rosemary leaves. Snuggle the foil up and around the fish and cook as described above.

Whether cooking for a crowd or his own private party, this is the sauce that my Corvallis, Ore., fish guy, Harry Daughters, uses on his popular grilled salmon. This is a fairly basic approach to barbecuing a large fillet of any kind.

1/2cup butter, melted

3tablespoons ketchup

3tablespoons dry vermouth

1tablespoon soy sauce

1tablespoon Dijon mustard

Up to 5 pounds of salmon fillet

Combine the butter, ketchup, soy sauce, Dijon mustard and dry vermouth. Meanwhile, place the salmon skin side down on an oiled grill over hot coals. Cover (either with a domed barbecue lid, or with a large piece of heavy-duty foil, and cook until opaque on the surface, then baste with the sauce 3 to 4 times as you continue to cook just until the flesh is just flaking when gently prodded with a fork. Figure on a cooking time of about 10 minutes per inch (measured at thickest part of the fillet).

Grilling whole fish outdoors on a barbecue results in a crisp skin and moist, tender meat inside. If you use a hinged square metal rack to grill small whole fish it makes turning easier.

4fresh, dressed trout (or other fish)

Olive oil

Salt and Pepper

Thyme sprigs (or other herb, such as rosemary or basil)

4thick-cut slices peppered bacon

2lemons, cut in wedges

Brush the fish lightly with olive oil, inside and out. Lightly salt and pepper the inside of each fish. Place a thyme sprig inside each fish. Wrap with a strip of bacon. Place in the hinged grill basket and cook over medium-hot coals, until the bacon is crispy and the trout is tender and will flake when the flesh is gently prodded with a fork, about 5 minutes per side. Serve with lemons.

Makes 4 servings.

This is a great sauce for fried trout. Freshly made, it beats any bottled version.

1cup high-quality commercial mayonnaise (such as Best Foods)

1/4cup dill pickle relish

3tablespoons minced green onion, including some of the green tops

1hard-cooked egg, peeled and minced

2tablespoons minced fresh parsley

1tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

2teaspoons drained and minced capers

1teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1teaspoon snipped fresh dillweed

About 1/4 teaspoon salt

About 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

About 1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

Dash of Tabasco (or other hot pepper sauce)

In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, dill pickle relish, green onion, egg, parsley, lemon juice, capers, Worcestershire sauce, dillweed, salt, pepper, cayenne, and Tabasco. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour for flavors to develop; may be prepared up to 2 days ahead.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Prepare a couple of these butters. Use them to baste your fish on the barbecue or in the oven, or just add a dollop to each serving right before serving.

The Kokanee Cafe is in Camp Sherman, off Highway 20 15 miles west of Sisters in Central Oregon. Their corn butter is equally delicious as a fast and tasty fish seasoner.

1/2pound butter, at room temperature

1tablespoon minced shallots

1teaspoon minced garlic

About 2 tablespoons butter

3chipotle peppers, minced (see note)

1/4cup minced cilantro

Heat about 2 tablespoons of the butter in a small skillet over medium heat and saute the shallots and garlic until the shallots are softened. Remove from heat and stir in the chipotle peppers (with some of the liquid from the can) and cilantro. Let the mixture cool, and then blend it into the remaining softened butter using a wooden spoon.

Note about chipotle peppers: these smoky peppers are available canned, “in adobo sauce.” Check the Mexican food section of a well-stocked supermarket. The brand I’ve used is Embasa.

1/2pound butter, at room temperature (divided)

1tablespoon minced shallots

1teaspoon minced garlic

2roasted and peeled red peppers, seeded and minced

1/2pound butter, at room temperature

black pepper

Heat about 2 tablespoons of the butter in a small skillet over medium heat and saute the shallots and garlic until the shallots are softened. Remove from heat and stir in the roasted peppers and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Let the mixture cool, and then blend it into the remaining softened butter using a wooden spoon.

1/2cup butter, softened

1-2cloves garlic, minced

1tablespoon snipped chives

2teaspoons minced fresh basil

1teaspoon minced fresh oregano

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Cream together the butter, garlic, chives, basil, oregano, salt and pepper. Let the butter stand, covered, for at least 1 hour for the flavors to develop.

1/2cup butter, softened

1tablespoon chili sauce

2teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1tablespoon minced fresh parsley

1teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1teaspoon Dijon-style mustard

Dash of hot pepper sauce

Cream together the butter, chili sauce, lemon juice, parsley, Worcestershire sauce, mustard and hot pepper sauce. Let the butter stand, covered, for at least 1 hour for the flavors to develop.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at

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