The beauty of grilling is that just about any foodstuff lends itself to the technique. Here on Memorie di Angelina, we’ve grilled vegetables, chicken, lamb, pork and, most recently, beef. But grilled fish is equally easy and delicious, and very popular in Italy. Some people shy away from cooking fish, thinking that there is something mysterious about it. This post will hopefully dispel that notion. Grilling fish is just as easy as grilling any other kind of food.
In Italy, fish is usually grilled whole, cleaned of its viscera but with head and tail still on. It is said that the fish is tastier that way, and I fully agree. Just like with meat, the bones provide extra flavor. If you are squeamish, however, the same technique can be used with fish fillets. Most fish has a rather delicate (some would say bland) flavor and is very lean, so it is customary to marinate it first to add flavor and make sure it stays moist when subjected to the intense heat of a grill.
- 4-6 whole fish (see Notes)
- 4-6 sprigs on fresh rosemary and/or oregano
- Olive oil
- Juice of 1 or 2 freshly squeezed lemon
- Salt and pepper
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely chopped
- Lemon wedges
About 30 minutes before you want to cook, score both sides of the fish at regular intervals, insert a sprig of rosemary or fresh oregano, or both, in the fish’s cavity, and pour a mixture of olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice, salt and pepper over the fish. Allow the fish to marinate in this mixture, turning the fish several times so that the marinade penetrates evenly.
Then grill your fish over a hot flame, until nicely browned on both sides. Total time will depend on the thickness of the fish. The general rule of thumb is 10 minutes per inch (3 cm.) of thickness. But you will probably need more time for small fish, so that it has time to brown nicely. A minimum would be 5 minutes per side over a hot flame. If you have a larger fish that needs longer cooking, then use a moderate flame to avoid the skin burning. Take care with the tail, as well, as it tends to burn quickly; you can either cover it with aluminum foil or position your fish so that the tail gets only indirect heat.
When the fish is fully cooked, place it on a serving platter, drizzle with best quality fruity olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, then with a bit of finely chopped parsley. Serve your grilled fish with lemon wedges.
Most kinds of fish lend themselves to grilling whole, but some are more suitable than others. In Italy, branzino or spigola (seabass, pictured here) and orata (seabream) are particularly popular. River fish like trout are also wonderful grilled. Tuna and swordfish are wonderful grilled but, of course, they are grilled as steaks. Try to avoid fish with too delicate a flesh, as it will tend to fall apart as you turn the fish, although this is less of an issue when grilling a fish whole, as the skin and carcass help keep it all together—another reason to prefer grilling fish this way. To avoid (in my book, at least) is fish with a strong flavor like mackerel. Shellfish, especially shrimp, is also delicious grilled, but the technique is a bit different, so I’ll leave that for another post.
I like to grill fish in a grilling basket (as pictured) which makes turning a snap. If you don’t have a basket, you’ll need to be very careful when you turn the fish over not to break the fish up. It helps to do this only once—with a basket you can turn as often as you like, for even cooking—and to use a large flipper (or two at a time). If you do use a grilling basket, make sure it is well oiled (or use some grilling spray) so that the fish does not stick to it.
The main possible variations for grilled fish lie in the marinade: you can add more or different fresh herbs, for example, or add a bit of chopped garlic or peperoncino. Personally, I avoid these additions, as they tend to burn and, in any event, overwhelm the delicate flavor of the fish. But, in cooking as in life, ‘to each his own’ is the best philosophy.