I’m always trying to figure out ways to combine difficult things with fun things. As Mary Poppins, a heroine of mine sang "A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down" while she got the Banks children to finally take responsibility and clean their room using some of her mysterious tricks to surprise and motivate them. Magical I am not, but when it comes to things that don’t come easily, I try to find a way to make them more palatable. Shoveling snow becomes more fun when combined with a family snowball fight, mopping the kitchen floor is always better listening to loud ‘80s music, and even getting daily exercise is more fun with a buddy, canine or human.
Through reading my column you may know that cooking fish is not something I’m good at. And this fact probably explains why my family doesn’t really like to eat it. But fish is good for you and I find it quite delicious, when someone else is in charge. So I continue to try different types of fish and methods of cooking but still struggle with this. And because of this, cooking fish is really not fun for me -- I find myself stressing out about several aspects of the dinner-making process -- crummy results, grim familial facial expressions and worries about entrenching a hatred of seafood in my children. And then there is that fishy smell that lingers in the house reminding me of this dismal scene. Not being one to rock the boat, I mostly avoid it.
But here comes the spring and summer grill seasons -- outdoors in the evening, puttering around with a glass of wine, eating out on the deck relaxing after a long day. I enjoy every bit of it and am always looking for new things to have for dinner -- after all, grilling can be a very quick and easy way to get dinner on the table on a week night. All in all, I find it to be extremely enjoyable.
So while I was in the grocery store last week, preparing myself to slink by the seafood department that always seems to mock me, I just had to stop myself. Here was the opportunity to possibly dilute my challenges with cooking fish with the relaxing act of grilling on the deck. If I was successful it would be perfect -- a healthy dinner, quick and easy; the potential of the return of at least some of my family’s confidence in my cooking ability and no stinky house. Did I dare?
Yes, I did. I walked right up and ordered a large piece of wild caught pollack (another thing that stresses my out -- what should I buy? I can never remember!). Now I was committed and there was so much fish that the kids would just have to eat it. I still wasn’t sure of how, but this fish was getting cooked on the grill.
As the day went on I thought about it. One of my biggest problems is overcooking the fish, leaving it dry, tough and flavorless. The best way I could think of to avoid that would be by cooking the fish sealed in a pouch. Heavy-duty aluminum foil would work great for that, keeping the juices where they needed to be and the direct flames at bay. When dinnertime came, I at least had the method and as I rummaged through the refrigerator looking at ingredient options I even began to get a little excited.
As with so many of my favorite recipes, the combinations of this are endless. Using what you have on hand and thinking a little about combinations that sound good to you will give you great results. Being outside relaxing while grilling with alleviate a bit of the stress and with my special ‘grill a bit, broil a bit’ technique, I think that you can cook any fish successfully.
For a one-pound piece of white fish filet:
Tear a piece of heavy-duty foil off of roll, long enough to lay your fish on with about 2" extra length on either size. Scatter half of a sliced onion, some thinly sliced red bell pepper and several leaves of roughly chopped kale in center of foil. Lay the fish on top of vegetables, folding over any thin areas to make fish about the same thickness overall. Arrange thin lemon slices on top of fish, drizzle on a touch of olive oil, season with a sprinkle of salt, a grind of pepper and some fresh herbs (I used parsley). Carefully seal the fish in the foil by bringing the long sides together and rolling up tightly, followed by crimping the ends so that so steam can’t escape. Place on a preheated grill on medium heat (or over medium coals) for about 10 minutes, then transfer package to a cookie sheet and open carefully to expose the top of the fish, but keeping all the juices contained. Cook under a hot broiler for about five minutes or until the fish is opaque and flakes easily. Serve immediately.
OK, so it is true that this "method" for cooking fish both on the grill and under the broiler really came about because we ran out of propane, and while the house was still a bit on the smelly side, it wasn’t as bad as it would have been had it been cooked under the broiler the whole time. Besides, it worked, and the fish was eaten by (most of) us quite happily. I like to think that the combination of heat sources was the key to cooking both the fish and vegetables perfectly.
Just think of all the variations on this dish: why not add a splash of white wine and some capers? Some fennel and diced fresh tomato would be good in there, too. How about leaving the kale out, using lime instead of lemon and replacing the parsley with cilantro? For that matter, we can certainly try changing up the fish -- salmon and a dill or tarragon variation.
So once again what was difficult is tempered by pairing it with some enjoyment. There wasn’t any magic, just a bit of courage to try yet again and a little faith that this method of using fun as a catalyst would work as well on cooking fish as it does on getting homework done (offering a snack) or mowing the lawn (you can listen to you headphones). Perhaps with this newly found confidence I might even try cooking the fish from start to finish on the grill without the broiler, spending the entire time out on our deck chatting with the neighbors and looking out over the garden. Of course, our newly filled tank of propane will help with that, too.
Julie Potter is a wife, mother of two, avid gardener and passionate cook who believes good food doesn’t have to be complicated. Share your thoughts with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.