Grilling a whole fish is cool, it’s trendy, it’s kind of caveman and it’s easy. I love that bringing a whole fish or two to the table will elicit gasps of appreciation from your dinners in a way few other dishes can. Especially since with my tips you can grill a whole fish dinner with very little effort. I have grilled whole fish both with and without a fish basket. I highly recommend a basket, especially if you want to cook two or more fish. The basket will hold you fish, lemons and herbs all in place with ease. The flip of the fish in the basket becomes something easy and fun without the basket it can get a little scary. All that being said you don’t have to have a basket to grill a fish; it is just a really nice convenience, and for this meal its all about making it easy.
Selecting the Fish
In my pictures I have chosen to grill a pair of branzino, they are tasty and light fish from Europe that is widely farmed and becoming very trendy. The pair I bought came from Whole Foods and looked so nice when I saw them that I knew they had to come home with me. Unlike a filet where it’s pretty hard to tell what you are getting, when buying a whole fish you have a lot to inspect. The eye is the best place to start it should be clear and bright without a gray film. The scales and fins should be in good shape, bright and shiny. Last if the fish still has gills ask to see them, they should be blood red, not dull or brownish. If you tell the fishmonger you want to grill the fish whole they will get to work on the prep of scaling it and taking out the gills, these guys are good. Small and uniform sized fish like snappers, branzino, or sea bass work best for grilling as they will fit in the fish basket and cook more evenly. If your fish has a big size disparity from front to back you may want to make 3-4 large deep slits down to the backbone to promote even cooking. This will let the middle cook at about the same speed as the thinner tail.
Seasoning the Fish
There are a lot of basic flavor combos that I have played with over the years: garlic and basil, dill and lemon, or orange and fennel tops. I think they are all great on most fish. Notice the all the herbs I am using with the fish are green and fluffy and easy to get in large bunches. Those fluffy fresh herbs are party of my secret to stress free grilled whole fish. The herbs are going to protect you fish from excess heat and stop it from sticking to the basket or grill grate. There is nothing cool or trendy about half your grilled fish getting stuck to the fish basket when try and open it.
Put it all Together
Start prepping you fish about the same time you start heating your grill. First you will need to rinse and dry your fish well, keep an eye out for any lose scales that may have stuck to the fish while being cleaned at the market. Once the fish is clean and dry in and out rub all over with olive or other favorite oil then salt and pepper the fish well. Set the fish aside and get your fish basket ready.
I am lucky that I have a big cookie sheet my basket fits on perfectly so I have an easy place to do my assembly, a cutting board might work well too. I start by spraying my fish basket with pam inside and out, and then I put in a sparse layer of the green herbs about the size of my fish. Then top that with the citrus or smashed garlic. Next I lay the fish on top. Stuff the cavity of the fish’s belly with more herbs and citrus or garlic. Then lay on more sliced citrus or garlic and another layer of the herbs. Close up you fish basket you are ready to go.
Cooking the Fish
My husband has a crazy hot propane grill so his medium high heat is like high heat on most grills, and that’s what you are going to need to get the skin to crisp up while cooking delicious juicy and tender meat inside. Part of why we want to grill a whole fish, besides looking cool, is that the bones and skin of the fish will help make the meat of the fish extra juicy and flavorful. I am all about making grilling easy, I want to sit on the patio sip a glass of wine and let my husband handle it. That’s why we are using a fish basket and we added that nice layer of green herbs because now there is no stress over sticking or flipping. Now a few rules don’t try to move or flip the fish basket once it’s hot without a good potholder, it’s hot. Ideally you don’t want to mess with the fish once it’s over the heat, and you only want to flip it just one time. The fish will take about 3-8 minutes a side, you will have to judge the length of time based on size of the fish and the temperature it was we it went on the grill, I can’t give a more precise time without all those variables. You nose and eyes are going to tell you when the fish is ready. When it’s time to remove the fish from the basket be careful the metal will be hot. Serve the fish with the tomato topping described below and lemon juice. The flesh of the fish should lift away from the fish’s backbone with ease; you can ask the fishmonger for hints about removing the meat from the bone of your particular fish, they sometimes have great hints.
Since I feel like grilled whole fish is a summery type dinner that will be enjoyed out on the patio next to the grill most of the time I have a pretty simple topping I make for my fish. It’s like a fresh salsa or bruschetta topping that is part salad part relish. I chop up tomato some of what ever green herb I am using on the fish with a little onion (fresh or grilled) and a bit of cucumber, salt, pepper and citrus juice. I just eyeball the proportions, you really can’t mess this up. And if you want to mix up the veggies go for it I have used celery, zucchini, or even some canned beans in the relish. The goal is to make something that will work as both a salad and fish relish that you can make in advance and just pull out when it’s time to grill. No fuss no worries. Plus I love fresh dill with tomatoes.
The Rest of the Meal
Find your favorite veggie to grill, it will go perfect with the fish, trust me. I will grill any veggie from corn and asparagus to Brussels sprouts and green beans. Keep it simple on grilled veggies: season salt, pepper and olive oil. Just be sure you don’t overcook the veggies you toss onto the grill while you are busy with the fish. When you pull the veggies off the heat hit them with a little lemon juice. Perfect. Add some crusty bread or wild rice if you must and that is dinner. I also serve a nice bottle of cold crisp white wine, I love a French Bordeaux with seafood.