The snow had barely disappeared after this past brutal winter in the Northeast, and I desperately need to grill something…..anything. We usually manage to shovel a path to our grill on our deck periodically throughout the long winter months. But not this year! It had been months since I’d tasted those wonderful, earthy flavors that you can only achieve on an outdoor grill. So at the first glimpse of spring, I knew I had to choose what would be my first grilled meal. Sure, hotdogs and hamburgers would have been a good, easy choice, but I felt this called for a celebration and wanted something a bit more festive and perhaps involved. I wanted to spend some time preparing the food for my first grilling of the season. I decided on grilled, whole branzino. This is a mediterranean fish, that I first became acquainted with in Italy many years ago. It soon became very popular in high-end Italian restaurants, as well as Greek restaurants. They all prepare it to perfection, but there is something wonderful about the flavor when you cook this fish on the grill.
The first time we attempted this, it was a bit daunting. We had no recipe, but knew how we like our branzino prepared. First we went out and bought the wire grilling baskets for the fish. I believe they still sell these contraptions, but I’ve also seen some newer equipment for just this purpose. However, you want to make sure you can turn the fish to get that grilled, crispy flavor on both sides. Once you have the right equipment, the rest is very easy. Did I mention that you have to handle the fish, while they seem to stare directly back at you? Okay, so this part is not for me. As a matter of fact, the only part that is for me is the buying and the eating of the fish. I pass the entire rest of the process on to my husband. Oh sure, I help chop the parsley and garlic…or slice the lemons, but I’m a baby about actually handling the fish.
There are a lot of variables with this recipe, and I always like to share these. First of all, you can really stuff the fish with any herb of your choice. We used sage and parsley here, but rosemary, thyme, oregano or tarragon are also wonderful. Fresh herbs are always better. Use what you like. The amount of garlic is also up to you, but do use at least one clove for flavor. You can add a little vinegar and/or mustard to the oil to make it more of a vinaigrette. I strongly urge you to always serve it with lemon wedges (you can also throw some lemon slices in the cavity). It’s the wonderful, citrus flavor of the lemons that reminds us of the Mediterranean. It is perfection!
RECIPE: serves 2 to 4
2 whole branzino, approximately 1 1/2 pounds, scaled, cleaned and fins removed
1 cup olive oil
4 -5 large cloves of garlic chopped
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
2 large sprigs of sage ( or herb of voice)
4 lemons, one thinly sliced, and the other 3 cut into wedges
1 TBSP sea salt
pepper to taste
1. Prepare grill to medium-hot.
2. Prepare the sauce by combining the garlic, parsley, olive oil, 1/2 TBSP. of salt and pepper. Mix well.
3. Season each fish cavity with salt and pepper. Place the lemon slices, sage and some of the sauce inside the cavity. Season the outside with the remaining salt and pepper. Drizzle a bit of the sauce (just the oil) on the outside of the fish. Place each fish in it’s separate basket and close the latch.
4. Place the fish baskets on the grill. Cook, turning once, until the skin is crispy and the fish is cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes per side.
5. Unlatch the baskets, and transfer the fish to a platter. This makes a beautiful presentation.
6. If cooked well, filleting the fish is quite easy. You cut off the head, tail, and the spine will easily come out, leaving two beautiful, plump filets. Drizzle the remainder of the sauce on top of the filets, and serve with fresh lemon wedges, making sure to squeeze the fresh lemon juice all over the fish.