Grilled whole daurade at Taverna Khione in Brunswick.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff photographer

Yes, it’s Labor Day weekend, but according to the calendar it’s still summer, and we do live in Maine. So why not add seafood to the menu today, or on any grilling-friendly day in the weeks to come?

Seafood steaks are the safest way to go. Swordfish, halibut, tuna, and salmon steaks will almost always hold up on the grill. But what about more delicate white fish? Or the fragile but delicious oysters now being grown along the Maine coast? Or even tender, sweet lobster, which needn’t be restricted to a pot of boiling water? We spoke with several chefs and fishmongers for tips on how to make any seafood grilling session a success.

It starts with the heat

South Freeport resident chef Barton Seaver is a fan of wood and charcoal. Seaver, the author of the soon-to-be-published “The Joy of Seafood,” understands the convenience of gas but argues “it doesn’t have the same qualities and character and the same rustic appeal” of live fire. “Lighting up charcoal might take 10 minutes longer,” he said, “but you’re already investing your time in moving outside, and to me it’s worth the investment.”

Kit Paschal, general manager of The Shop, an oyster bar on Washington Avenue in Portland, has always been “a charcoal person,” and stands by that for grilling oysters. “If I want to eat quickly, I’ll eat inside,” he said. “There’s just something about lighting a fire…”

Choose the right fish

When it comes to white fish fillets, cast aside your fear. Seaver recommends fattier fish such as sablefish, an oily north Pacific species that won’t stick to your grill and is known for its rich, buttery flavor. Lean species such as flounder can take on a slightly tinny, metallic flavor when grilled, Seaver warned.

According to our experts, other white fish suitable for grilling include cod, mackerel, scup, branzini, black sea bass, and hybrid striped bass — a farm-raised alternative to the wild fish.

Seafood expert Barton Seaver has a new seafood cookbook coming out in October that includes tips for grilling. Photo courtesy of Sterling Epicure 

“You could throw a cusk fillet right on the grill and turn it with a pair of tongs,” said Nick Alfiero, whose family owns Harbor Fish Market in Portland. “It will not fall apart. It will stay firm.”

And then choose the right oil

Rubbing the fish lightly with oil will prevent it from sticking to the grill. Rod Mitchell, founder of Browne Trading Co. in Portland, insists on good quality extra-virgin olive oil. Vegetable oil will break down too quickly in the heat, he said, causing your fish to stick and burn.

To flip or not to flip

Once the white fish fillets are sizzling on the grill, it’s tempting to start flipping them. After all, tossing the fish with your tongs, along with the flames, the sizzle and the smoke – they’re part of the show, right?  But Seaver takes a hands-off approach. He never flips; he covers the grill and uses it like an oven, allowing the fish to cook through.

“The grill does not break fish,” Seaver said. “The grill cook breaks fish. One of these things you can change. That’s why I recommend the indirect grilling method.”

Seaver builds a fire on one side of the grill and starts the fish directly over it. After the fish gets a quick char around the edges, he picks up the grate and rotates it 180 degrees. Now the fish is off the hot coals yet still cooking and absorbing smoky flavors. No flipping needed.

Mitchell, an avid fisherman who cooks a lot of his catch at home, is a flipper. But he warms the grill up gradually, occasionally sliding a spatula underneath the cooking fish very gently to ensure it’s not sticking.

More ways to protect your dinner

Grilling hacks abound for preventing your fish from disintegrating and falling through the grates into the fire. Here are a few:

• Use a perforated stainless steel grilling tray or similar gadget. Alfiero suggests a cheaper alternative: Take an aluminum roasting pan — the kind used to roast a turkey — and cut  holes in it. As the fish juices hit the coals, the flames will flare up and reach your fish, but the fillets won’t fall through the grate.

• Cook halibut or cod fillets in parchment packages with olive oil and a touch of white wine. Heat the grill to about half or two-thirds of its cooking temperature, then set the packages at the edge of the heat for 15 minutes. “That will steam-cook any good white fish,” Alfiero said.

• Buy fish with skin attached. “If you can find haddock or cod with skin on,” Seaver said, “that is an added benefit as it also protects the meat and moisture a little bit while adding flavor.”

• Grill whole fish. Our experts recommend dourade, branzino, snapper, mackerel and sardines. Whole fish such as mackerel are not only inexpensive, they are also good for you, chock full of omega-3 fatty acids, says Marc Provencher, chef/owner of Taverna Khione in Brunswick.

Marc Provencher, chef/owner at Taverna Khione, grills a whole daurade. The skin of the fish keeps it from sticking to the grill. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff photographer

You’ve come this far. Now don’t overcook the fish.

Whether filleted or whole, how do you know when your fish is done? A general guideline is 10 minutes of cooking per inch of thickness, Seaver says, but he usually shaves that back to 7 or 8 minutes.

Provencher inserts a knife into the grilling fish for five seconds, then touches the knife to his wrist or lip. The knife should be hot, but not too hot or the fish will be dry.

Alfiero inserts a toothpick into the raw fish to get a feel for its texture. After the fish has cooked for five minutes, he inserts it again. The toothpick will slide through cooked fish easily, but if it hits an uncooked portion, expect resistance.

“When you get absolutely no resistance at all — it just slides through — get it off the grill,” Alfiero said. “It’s done.”

Grilled oysters on the half shell? Yes, please.

Take note: Bigger is better. Select medium- to large-sized oysters for grilling because they’ll cook in their own liquid and may shrink a little in the process.

Paschal says there’s no flavor advantage to letting oysters open on the grill, so he suggests shucking them first. Cut the adductor muscle and remove the top shell, leaving the oyster meat in the other half, sitting in its natural liquor.

Grilling oysters is a good alternative to eating them raw. Photo by Karl Schatz from The New Portland, Maine Chef’s Table

Place the oysters in their half-shells onto a medium-hot grill and add a dollop of butter or compound butter (see recipe). Lower the lid so the oysters get some smoke, but don’t leave them on too long; if they boil in their shells, they will be tough and rubbery. Overcooking, Paschal said, is the No. 1 mistake that home grillers make.

“You just want to kind of warm them through,” Paschal said. “By the time the butter has melted into the oyster, that’s enough. You want to warm them, not cook them.”

Whatever you do, don’t place raw oysters directly on the grill. “Never,” Paschal said. “That would be terrible.”

 

Expand your lobster repertoire

Grilling lobster adds a delectable hint of smoky flavor. And, let’s face it, you’re showing off a little in front of your out-of-town guests when you load the grill with lobster.

Seaver begins by parcooking the lobster for four minutes in boiling, salted water. The parcooking not only dispatches the lobster, it allows the grillmaster to cook more lobsters quickly, and “sets” the tomalley so that fans of the green stuff won’t lose any of it on the grill.

Seaver lets the parboiled lobsters cool, then halves them lengthwise and removes the sand sack behind the eyes and the vein that runs down the tail. He cracks the claws open but leaves the meat, brushes the cut side of the lobster with melted butter, then places both halves directly over the coals, cut side down. After three minutes, he flips the lobsters, moves them to the outer part of the grill and slathers them with a spiced butter (he flavors his with mace, vanilla extract and lemon).

Harbor Fish Market has produced, in time for Labor Day weekend, a video that shows how to prepare its “Crab Cake-Stuffed Grilled Lobster.” But Alfiero doesn’t care for grilling lobster himself because it’s too easy to overdo it — “The shell will char and burn and smell awful” — and the meat has “such an intense flavor the way it is.”

“I just want to pull it out and dip it in butter,” he said.

GRILLED OYSTERS WITH HERBED BOTTARGA BUTTER AND PRESERVED LEMON

This recipe from The Shop is featured in “The New Portland, Maine Chef’s Table” by Margaret Hathaway (DownEast Books, $29.95). The Shop General Manager Kit Paschal likes the bottarga for “another layer of fishiness in the best way possible.” Buy Bottarga, or salt-cured tuna roe, at seafood shops or online. Heads up: It’s pricey.

You’ll have more bottarga butter than you need. The butter is “very versatile,” Paschal said. “You can roll it up into a log using parchment paper and freeze it for 2-3 months. After its frozen you can cut little coins off the log as needed.” Among other uses, he suggested using the extra butter to emulsify into a seafood pasta dish, to sauté with “just about any vegetable,” to mix into scrambled eggs and to add (a small knob) to clams steamed with white wine.

Serves 4

12 medium to large Maine oysters

Compound butter

Chives, snipped

FOR THE COMPOUND BUTTER:

½ ounce (10 grams) piece bottarga

½ preserved lemon

1 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 tablespoons whole milk

1 tablespoon roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley

Sea salt, to taste

To prepare compound butter: Using a microplane, shave the bottarga. Remove the flesh from the preserved lemon and discard, and finely chop the lemon peel.

Combine butter, bottarga, and preserved lemon peel in a mixing bowl; use a hand mixer on low to mix the ingredients. After 2 minutes, slowly increase mixer speed while adding milk. Whip on high for another 3 to 4 minutes. Add parsley during the last 2 minutes. Taste, and adjust seasoning, adding sea salt if desired.

To cook the oysters: Heat a grill until it is medium hot. Shuck oysters, detaching the adductor muscle from the bottom shell.

Place oysters directly on grill or grill pan. Be careful not to spill too much of the natural liquor. Add a dollop of compound butter to each oyster.

Let cook until oyster and butter are both bubbling. The goal is to be warmed through but not overcooked and rubbery. Garnish with a pinch of chives.

GRILLED MACKEREL OVER FENNEL STALKS WITH ORANGE-PISTACHIO PICCATA

Recipe from the forthcoming “The Joy of Seafood” by Barton Seaver (Sterling Epicure $35, due out in October)

Serves 4

4 mackerel portions, skin on and scored

Salt

Extra-virgin olive oil

8-10 fennel stalks

1 recipe Orange-Pistachio Piccata

Season the fish with salt and let it rest for 15 minutes. Prepare a charcoal grill with a medium fire. Drizzle the fish with olive oil. Arrange a thick layer of fennel stalks on the grill over the hot coals. Place the fish, skin side down, on top of the fennel. Cover the grill and cook until the fish is done. Remove the fish from the grill and discard the fennel stalks. Serve with Orange-Pistachio Piccata.

Note: If using a gas grill, preheat all burners to medium high. Place the fennel stalks on one side of the hot grates. Place the fish skin side down on the fennel and cover the grill to finish cooking.

ORANGE-PISTACHIO PICCATA

Makes about ½ cup

1 cup shelled raw pistachios

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, grated

1 orange, zested

Salt

In a dry saute pan over medium heat, toast the pistachios until hot all the way through. Working quickly, roughly chop the pistachios (you want some to be powdery but others to be in large chunks). While the nuts are still hot, stir them into the olive oil, garlic, and orange zest and season with a pinch of salt. Serve at room temperature. Do not refrigerate, as it will make the pistachios soggy.

GRILLED WHOLE FISH

This simple method, from Marc Provencher, chef/owner of Taverna Khione in Brunswick, will work for any whole fish. Provencher often roasts whole fish at the restaurant.

Whole daurade cooks on the grill at Taverna Khione. Provencher stuffs the cavity with lemon and herbs. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff photographer

To begin, ask your fishmonger to gut and scale a whole fish for you. Provencher suggests buying 1 to 1 1/4 pounds of fish per person you plan to feed.

Season the cavity with salt and pepper, then stuff it with lemon slices and herbs such as thyme, rosemary and parsley.

Slash through the skin of the fish before cooking. The fat in the fish’s skin will keep the fish from sticking to the grill. “The skin helps keep it intact, as well as still being on the bone,” Provencher said. Skip the big, showy flip — just roll the whole thing over on the grill when the first side is cooked.

To test if the fish is cooked, Provencher inserts a knife into the fish for five seconds, then touches the knife to his wrist or lip. The knife should be hot, but not too hot or the fish will be dry.


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