The presentation of an entire animal is a high point of any home cook’s career. But few critters lend themselves to a weekend meal, let alone a weeknight. And even then, unless it’s a suckling pig, the presentation is often no more dramatic than a roast chicken. Fish are the exception. While there’s some care to be taken — you’ve got to pick a good one, and the window of doneness is pretty short — cooking a fish is simple and expeditious, and the final product presents beautifully.
Jared Gadbaw, the executive chef of Marea (a restaurant with two Michelin stars and three stars from The New York Times), oversees a daily exposition of seafood preparation — from crudo to whole fish — that’s widely considered one of the best in New York. In Marea’s kitchen, he guided us through the preparation of an Atlantic mackerel, his favorite fish and one that lends itself well to small kitchens and Weber-equipped patios.
Jared Gadbaw is the Executive Chef of Marea, an Italian seafood restaurant in New York City with two Michelin stars.
Mackerel might be an unfamiliar fish for many home cooks, but they’re one of the great treasures of the ocean. “In my opinion they’re some of the best grilling fish out there”, Gadbaw says. “They’re oily, they have a lot of flavor, they don’t have scales on them and the skin lends itself nicely to grilling; you get a nice crackle on it.” On the east coast, mackerel — whether Atlantic, Spanish or Boston — are generally pretty easy to find at a good fish market. If you can’t find them, the technique described here applies to similarly oily fish (like sardines) and to all finned fish (as opposed to flat fish like flounder or sole), generally.
The best part? There are practically no dishes to clean up when you throw the whole fish on the grill — and the presentation is timeless. “When entertaining, presenting a whole grilled fish really goes a long way in terms of style points”, Gadbaw says. “And it makes people feel like they’re a part of something more than they normally are at home, eating a filet of salmon or another fish.”
Grilling a Fish
1Find the right fish. There are basically two things to consider when you’re looking for a fish to grill: the size and the quality. You’ll get about one six-ounce portion (which is what you’ll be served in a restaurant) for every pound of fish that you order, according to Gadbaw. We grilled a half-pound Atlantic mackerel with him, so two of those would be sufficient for one person. “The most common fish you’ll see at the market, at least around New York, are snappers, bass, probably some sort of branzino (that I’m sure is farm-raised in Greece or the Mediterranean somewhere) and some mackerel, depending on the season”, Gadbaw says. Any of these will work perfectly on the grill.
Next, you’ve got to assess the quality of the fish. “Fish shouldn’t smell”, Gadbaw says. “Not everybody wants to ask the purveyor to smell it, but that’s what my grandmother did. If it smells like fish, it’s probably not the freshest.” The two other things to look for are clear eyes and nice red gills. If it looks gross, it is gross.
2Gut, scale and clean. Mackerel don’t have scales, but if you’re dealing with another fish ask your purveyor to scale and gut it; if they don’t take the gills out, you’ll want to cut them out when you get home. There’s also a bloodline that runs up the spine of the fish. Score it with a knife and rinse it under water. The reason you’re doing all of this is to remove any blood from the fish. “Blood is going to really become fragrant when it cooks”, Gadbaw says. “Cooking the blood and the gills will make the fish stink; the bigger the fish, the worse it’ll smell.” The last step is to cut off all the fins and make the fish look as pretty as possible.
3Prep and season the fish. “You want a clean, dry and room-temperature fish”, Gadbaw says. Once you wash it and pat it down with a towel, leave it on the counter for a few minutes (like you would with any meat) so it doesn’t go on the grill cold. Putting a cold fish on a grill causes the temperature of the grill to drop and will make the skin stick. You also have the option to stuff the fish with things like fennel, aromatic herbs and lemon slices, though Gadbaw suggests that the effect is more in presentation than flavor. “When you’re grilling, you might have some smoke from some herbs burning and that might permeate”, he says. “But in all honesty I wouldn’t buy extra herbs to stuff it.” Do season the fish with salt, inside and out.
4Get the grill hot. “All cooking, all grilling, depends on the heat of the grill or pan”, Gadbaw says. “If you’re starting with a lukewarm grill, the skin will stick and come off in one piece and look awful.” So make sure you have a nice, hot grill — not so hot that it chars the fish and makes it bitter, but hot enough that the skin doesn’t stick. Gadbaw’s way of checking the heat of the grill is to put his hand an inch above it. If you can hold it there for two seconds before it starts to hurt, you’re ready to go.
At Marea, chef Gadbaw demonstrated the grilling technique on a countertop charcoal Konro grill that they use for small preparations. At $169, it’s affordable, and you can throw it right on top of your stove at home, using the hood to capture the smoke from the charcoal. Pro Tip: Japanese charcoal, binchotan, burns cleaner and hotter than regular briquettes, though briquettes are fine provided they aren’t treated with fuel.
5Put the fish on the grill. Put a small amount of cooking oil on the skin of the fish. Paint or pat it on, but be careful not to overdo it since extra oil will cause the charcoal to flare up and get soot on the fish. Once the fish goes on the grill, don’t touch it; if you start trying to move it around, that delicate skin will rip and tear. “You should hear the skin crackling, but it shouldn’t be a hard hiss”, Gadbaw says. “It shouldn’t sound angry.” If it does, turn it down. As a general guideline, he says that a two-pound fish at room temperature would go on a hot grill for about five minutes per side. That’s a fish for two people. That’s a good date.
6Flip, and test doneness. Use a spatula to gently loosen the fish from the grill, then flip it over the spine so whatever you’ve stuffed inside doesn’t spill out. When you think the fish is close to being done, insert a cake tester into the fish right near the spine. If it goes in with just a small amount of resistance it should be great by the time it carries over (continues cooking) off the grill. If you can feel it popping through sinew, it requires more time. Alternatively, you can put the cake tester to your lip; if it’s about body temperature, you’re ready to eat.
7Plate it and serve it. One way to plate the fish is to throw it on a plate and let your guests have at it. But Gadbaw offers an alternative, in case your guests aren’t the type to break down their own fish. Go right up the middle of the fish where there’s a natural divide and, using a fork or spatula, separate the fish from the bone. Do the same with the bottom side. Then grab the fish by the tail and you’ll be able to slide the entire spine right out of the meat. You’ll still have some pin bones to eat around, but it’ll be much cleaner than tackling a whole fish.
“Plate it how you’re going to eat it”, Gadbaw says. “If you have something really bitter like dandelion greens, you don’t want to put them all in one clump. A customer might put that whole thing in their mouth and be like, that’s disgusting; it’s bitter as shit. Why’d he put that on the plate? But if you eat in small amounts, that bitterness plays well with the rest of the dish.” In this case, he plated with a charred lemon and a caper and wild oregano sauce (that’s shallots, capers, red wine vinegar and wild oregano, if you decide to make it at home), which pairs nicely with oily fish like swordfish, mackerel and sardines. A drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and some salt also do the trick.