Something magical happens when very fresh fish is cooked simply over the grill. Image source: Flickr CC user Peter F.
I admit the latest trendy diet--the Paleo diet--has rubbed off on me a bit. I’ve cut back on grains, sugar, and dairy. But long before the Paleo diet became trendy, there was the Mediterranean diet, and although it isn’t in favor right now, I think it gets a lot of things right. The Mediterranean diet appeared on American shores in the 1990s, and de-emphasized beef in favor of more fish, whole grains, seasonal vegetables, and olive oil. And red wine. You have to love a diet that okays wine in moderation. But the Mediterranean diet endures because it's more than a diet. It's a way of life, and fresh fish, cooked simply, plays a starring role. It’s worth revisiting.
Keep It Simple
I grew up in Vietnam near the Mekong Delta. That meant my family ate a lot of fish. Steamed and cooked whole was the classic method. We sometimes made sauces based on ginger, lemongrass, chili peppers, soy sauce, and sugar, but the simplest methods were always the best. That way the fresh flavor of the just-caught fish came through.
But now that I’ve traveled elsewhere in the world, I know that Vietnam doesn’t have the monopoly on simple, delicious preparations of fish. When it comes to seafood, the Mediterranean is where I look for other sources of inspiration.
When in Rome…
I remember a trip to Salerno, a city in southern Italy on the beautiful Amalfi coast. One lazy afternoon on the Mediterranean Sea, I had grilled sea bass that is forever etched in my mind. It was cooked on the beach over grape vines. The fish was grilled whole with nothing added to it but a brush of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt, and squeeze of lemon. Of course, the salty air and marine views had a lot to do with how I remember that meal, but it was the simplicity of the preparation which brought out the impeccable freshness of the fish that made it so memorable. It was fantastic.
I was worlds away from my family’s table in Vietnam, but as the platter of fish with side dishes of fresh vegetable and garlic scape pasta was set before us, it felt very similar to Vietnam. The fish had probably been caught that morning, and because it was so fresh, sauces and marinades would have detracted from its flavor. Just like what I ate at home.
Since that trip, grilled whole fish has become a staple at my house. I still love steamed catfish like I ate as a child, but grilled fish (I like branzino best) is well suited to my new home in California with its Mediterranean-like climate. And it’s so good and easy to prepare. A gas grill is fine, but to best channel that on-the-Mediterranean experience, charcoal or fruit wood (grape, apple, and peach wood are great if you can find them) make it even better. Try throwing on a few branches of rosemary for extra smoky, herby flavor, too. This dish is so simple that even small things--like what wood you choose for the fire--make a big difference in taste.
Just like in Italy, I simply brush a cleaned and scaled whole fish with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and lemon juice inside and out. Whole branzino is great because of its meaty flavor and the way it holds up well on the grill, but any firm-fleshed whole fish will do (snapper is great for this, too!). As long as it’s very fresh, it doesn’t need to be a whole fish, either. Filets of halibut, swordfish, or grouper also work, but take care not to overcook them. Once the fish is lightly brown and crisp on both sides it’s ready. I love it with whole wheat pasta tossed with torn basil, chunks of fresh tomato, olive oil, and fresh grated Parmesan cheese. Classic Mediterranean. It’s not Paleo, but so what? It’s good. And good for you.
For me this is fresh fish at its best--simple and delicious. Hot coals and a minimalist approach are key to the dish, but even more important is fresh fish. In a dish so simple, the fish’s freshness makes or breaks the meal. Ordering your fish online from Daily Fresh Fish ensures you get it at least three days fresher than what you’d get at the market, because it goes from our dock straight your door, with no sitting in a seafood case. We even offer a 100% freshness guarantee, so you can be confident that you’re buying the freshest fish available.