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Hello from AUGUST! I am trying to channel a more positive attitude about what is undeniably the most anticlimactic warm weather season of my sweet young life and consider the last twenty days we have left to be a GIFT. And what better way to honor this gift than by GRILLING A WHOLE FISH. It goes without saying that WHOLE FISH screams “I’m having a great time,” but pairing that with a full spread of casually prepared summer vegetables, well, then, that is a full blown party.
Admittedly, I want a lot of things for you (to buy anchovies, to keep the stems on parsley, to not peel your onions when you make brothy beans), but what right now, today, what I really want is for you to take a chance on yourself and grill a whole fish. It’s not hard, and as I’ve said before: If you can grill a hot dog, you can grill a whole fish.
See you Thursday! —AR
Chicken soup for summer colds
If you’re feeling late-summer fatigue kicking in (it can’t just be me), may I suggest…..grilling a whole fish? I’m sure that wasn’t on your agenda for the week, but I’m here to tell you that should be. Simpler than it sounds, fish-grilling is a truly joy-inducing activity, maybe the exact thing you need at this end of this summer. If you don’t have a grill (I don’t!), I’m very pleased to report this also works in the oven, and still made me feel very accomplished.
Think of this as summer’s answer to spring’s chicken dinner, in that it’s mostly about how to grill fish, but it’s also about how to make an entire spread out of that fish, from the preserved lemon dressing to the salads and other snacky things to serve alongside it. This is low-maintenance, high-reward cooking (the Home Movies agenda) at its finest. Casual but still special, it’s a great way to take advantage of the beautiful in-season produce and make a big, exciting dinner. March on over to your favorite local fish market (you already know ours is Fish Tales), confidently ask for a few “gutted and scaled branzinos, please,” and get ready to impress yourself.
If grilling a whole fish feels intimidating, we’re here to put your mind at ease because this video covers all the basics. We discuss the difference between bone-in and butterflied fish, how to prevent overcooking and sticking to the grill, and the importance of supporting the head like your fish is a baby. You’ll also see what to serve with it to make it a full, actual dinner (our favorite thing).
While the fish is the star of the show, what would the star be without an extraordinary supporting cast. This video features a decidedly mediterranean vibe, but the moral of the story is just about making sure you have a well-rounded spread:
Grilled fish + something saucy (preserved lemon dressing) + an herby, starchy moment (orzo salad) + something crunchy and salty (crushed cucumbers and olives) + something sweet and sharp (tomatoes with sliced onions) + something creamy and fatty to snack on (sliced feta).
If you want some other ideas and substitutions, you know we’ve got you covered.
If you don’t have a grill, you can make the fish in an oven—instructions for that method below.
In place of the orzo salad, you could go for another starchy side, like potato salad, boiled, crushed potatoes, or lemony potatoes. You could also make the salad the same way but use rice, barley, farro, or another grain instead of orzo.
For the preserved lemon dressing, you can make your own or find them online or at a Middle Eastern or specialty grocer. You could also use half of a regular lemon instead and follow the recipe as written, or skip the dressing altogether and simply squeeze lemon over your fish. If you want it to be spicy, you could add some chili flakes, and you could use lemon juice instead of vinegar (but vinegar gives it a little sweetness and different kind of acidity, and is really nice here). This dressing is good on most things, FYI.
For the cucumber olive salad, you can use white wine vinegar or white distilled vinegar, and this is a great place to add herbs if you’re not serving the herby orzo salad.
If you don’t like olives, no need to yell about it!!! Serve them on the side for others to enjoy, or skip altogether.
Since you’re already grilling, you can absolutely throw some other things on the grill to serve alongside the fish, like scallions, zucchini, or eggplant.
For the tomatoes and onions, you can use regular tomatoes if you can’t find our sweet sweet sungolds, and if your tomatoes are a little meh, zhuzh them up with some vinegar, fish sauce, or anchovies.
The sliced feta here adds a nice amount of fat and creaminess since the fish is so lean, but you could also go for an aioli or seasoned yogurt situation in its place.
Click HERE for a printable PDF.
grilled branzino with lemon
FOR THE FISH
4 tablespoons canola or olive oil, plus more for the (optional) grill
4 (1¼-pound) branzinos, gutted and scaled
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Heat a well-oiled grill to medium-high heat.
2. Thinly slice 2 lemons and divide the slices between the 4 fish, inserting the slices where the fish is open from cleaning (typically from the head to the middle of the belly), seasoning with salt and pepper in there while you’re at it. You can tie the fish closed with butcher’s twine if you like, but the lemon slices should stay put. Rub the outside of the fish with the canola oil and season with salt and pepper.
3. Once the grill is as hot as it’s going to get, place the fish on the grill with the backbone facing you (as opposed to the open side)—it’s easier to flip it from this side. And now don’t touch it for 8 to 10 minutes. After 8 minutes, you can try to flip the fish to see if the skin is charred, puffed, and crispy (it should be). If the fish is ready to be flipped, it will release easily; if it doesn’t, give it a few more minutes.
4. Once the fish is ready to be flipped, take a large, wide spatula (a fish spatula works really well here, but so does a large grilling spatula) and place it under the fish, just like you’re flipping a pancake. From there, flip it so that the open side is now facing you. Continue to grill until the other side is also charred and crispy and the fish is cooked through, another 8 to 10 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, halve the remaining 2 lemons crosswise and throw them on the grill, cut-side down, until they’re charred and starting to caramelize, about 5 minutes.
6. Serve the fish with the preserved lemon relish and roasted lemons alongside.
1. Preheat the oven to 450°F.
2. Thinly slice 1 lemon and divide the slices between the 2 fish, inserting the slices where the fish is open from cleaning (typically from the head to the middle of the belly), seasoning with salt and pepper in there while you’re at it. You can tie the fish closed with butcher’s twine if you like, but the lemon slices should stay put. Rub the outside of the fish with the canola oil and season with salt and pepper.
3. Place the prepared fish on a wire rack set inside a rimmed baking sheet (or on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet). Halve the remaining 2 lemons and put them on the rack, cut-side down. Roast, without turning, until the fish is cooked through and the skin is starting to brown, 15 to 20 minutes. (The oven provides more even heat than the grill, so there’s no need to flip them.)
4. Serve the fish with the preserved lemon relish and roasted lemons alongside.
FOR THE DRESSING
1 preserved lemon, homemade (page 27 of Dining In) or store-bought, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely grated
⅓ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1. Combine the preserved lemon, garlic, olive oil, and vinegar in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
herby orzo salad
1/2 pound orzo
4 cups herbs, such as chives, dill, parsley, or cilantro, chopped
⅓ cup lemon juice (from about 2 lemons), plus more
1/3 cup olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Cook the orzo in a pot of salted, boiling water until just past al dente. Drain, rinse, and set aside to cool.
2. Transfer the orzo to a large bowl along with all the herbs and toss to combine. Add lemon juice and olive oil, and season with salt and lots and lots of black pepper. Toss again and season with more salt, pepper and lemon if needed.
crushed cucumbers and olives
4–6 persian cucumbers, cut into 1” pieces
1 cup castelvetrano olives, pitted and crushed
White wine vinegar or white distilled vinegar
Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper
1. With the side of a large knife, smash each piece of cucumber to expose its craggly insides. Add to a large bowl along with the olives and season them with salt and pepper. Finish with a generous splash of vinegar, and set aside while you cook your fish to let everything mingle together.
tomatoes with sliced onion
1 pound small tomatoes, such as sungolds, halved
½ red onion, thinly sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Chili flakes (optional)
1. Place the tomatoes on a serving platter. Top with the sliced onion, and season with salt, pepper, and a pinch of chili flakes if using. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil.
I bought my first house over the winter and after a lifetime of rather anonymously living in apartments I'm getting used to interacting with "neighbours". It's a bit much sometimes! But also I live next to an older Italian man named Antonio and he brings me tomatoes and cucumbers from his garden. Recently he asked me if I liked "sardines" and I said sure I'd love to try anything!
He told me a story about the village he lived in as a boy and how that day they would be celebrating a saint's holiday and the whole seaside would be filled with people grilling fish. A little bit later he brought over 2 beautifully charred sardines and a fluffy white bun and I had the best little meal I've had in years. Now I'm obsessed with grilling whole fish and I'm going to try your recipe!!