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posted: 6/6/2012 6:00 AM

When fish meet fire: How to grill seafood

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  • From THE GARDENER & THE GRILL by Karen Adler & Jud

  • Chef James Papadopoulos at Sam & Harry's in Schaumburg rubs halibut with blackening spices before the fillets hit the grill.

      Chef James Papadopoulos at Sam & Harry's in Schaumburg rubs halibut with blackening spices before the fillets hit the grill.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

By Deborah Pankey

Salmon and tuna steaks are about as adventurous as many folks get when it comes to grilling seafood. Those "meaty" pieces of fish don't seem to intimidate weekend grill masters. But there's an ocean of other possibilities out there.

Grouper and halibut are fine candidates for the grill, says chef James Papadopoulos from Sam & Harry's in Schaumburg.

"You want to go with a fish that's got more body to it," he said, adding that "delicate" fish like sole and fluke are best saved for oven or stovetop cooking.

Sturgeon, snapper, mahi-mahi, sea bass and tilapia are contenders for the grill as well.

One of the attractions to cooking fish on the grill is the quick cook time, about three minutes a side for halibut, four minutes for salmon, Papadopoulos says.

"It really doesn't take that long; over direct heat it's quick," he adds.

Direct heat. That's the key. Unlike many cuts of beef, pork and chicken that start over high heat for a nice sear and then move away from the glowing coals to finish, fish cooks over the hot coals. Still, those coals should be tamed with no flames licking the grates.

"Control the heat by spreading the coals evenly," he says. And clean the grates well once the heat loosens the grit from last night's burgers.

"Treat the fish with some respect, there should be no debris on the grill," Papadopoulos says. He also suggests brushing the fillets or steaks with a bit of oil before they hit the heat to ensure slick removal.

In "The Barbecue Bible," grilling guru Steven Raichlen also promotes brushing the fish with a bit of oil or melted butter, and he endorses porcelain or enamel fish or vegetable grates designed to fit on the grill's surface.

Even with a specialized grate, don't touch the fish too much. Flip once; any more than that and you're just asking for the fish to start falling apart. You'll know when the fish is done if it breaks into firm flakes when pressed with a finger, Raichlen says.

If cooking skin-on fish, place the oiled fish on the grate skin-side down, cover and cook six to 12 minutes, he says, depending on the thickness of the fish.

When it comes to flavoring the fish before it reaches the grill, Papadopoulos rules out citrus juice.

"Don't marinate with anything acid, like lemon juice," he says, "use acidity after the grill."

He suggests giving your favorite fish a quick dip in an oil-based marinade made with chopped dill, garlic and lemon zest. For tuna, try a bit of cherimoya juice with salt and pepper, toasted cumin, garlic and cilantro.

Papadopoulos also likes "blackening" spices, a pepper-heavy, herbaceous mix, for fish. The bold rub holds its own against smoky flavors imparted by the grill.

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