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TODAY

Saturday, December 16

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For a long time I've wanted to cook a whole fish on the grill. It seems so rustic and potentially very tasty. But I've put it off because I didn't think I could handle watching a fish's eyeballs cook (I've got a major eyeball phobia) and it just seemed very intimidating.

Well, there's nothing like having four friends come over for dinner to make you try something new. At least this is how I work. I almost never make a "tried and true" recipe when I have guests. Maybe I like to live dangerously, but I also know that once something gets to the "tried and true" category I get bored with it, and who wants to serve their guests a boring dinner? I do always keep a variety of take-out menus on hand, just in case.

I went to a local market (independently owned, of course) and picked out three whole red snappers. They looked like the best specimens in the case and I knew snapper would be firm enough to handle grilling. They seemed about the right size to get two servings per fish so I picked up three. The butcher cleaned off the scales and removed the heads for me which I highly appreciated.

I knew I wanted something to stuff in the gut of the fish to add flavor, but I didn't have a lot of fresh herbs options at this market. Cilantro is great, but some people think it tastes like dishwater. Parsley is also good, but not quite right, and a huge bundle of sage seemed like it would be just too overpowering for fish. Thankfully right next to the herbs were large beautiful leeks. They were firm and fresh and smelled good and they were organic.

Since summer is on us full-force, I knew I wanted to pick side dishes which wouldn't require me to turn on the oven at all, and that wouldn't require me to stand over a hot stove for more than ten minutes. Our lack of air-conditioning will affect our summer recipes and I'm grateful for the wonderful Weber grill and small back yard we have. So the menu consisted of whole red snapper stuffed with strips of leeks which were sauteed till soft in butter, a foil pouch filled with veggies, rice mixed with dates, almonds, and cinnamon cooked in the rice cooker, and a tomato mozzarella salad.

Whole Red Snapper Stuffed with Leeks

1 leek
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Leeks are delicious, but dirty. Trim off the tips of the green ends and trim off the root. Now cut this into three pieces. Cut the bottom section in half length-wise, and then cut these halves into strips about 1/4 to 3/8" wide. Repeat with the other two halves and throw in a colander. Rinse very well removing all the dirt and debris. Shake dry to remove as much water as possible. Heat a skillet on medium and add the oil and butter. Toss in the leeks and stir every minute or two until they're limp and soft. Remove from the heat before they begin to brown and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Set aside. (I found that one leek was the perfect amount for three fish.)

1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika (I prefer Hungarian paprika over sweet paprika.)
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 whole snapper (cleaned and scaled; you can leave the head on if you like or ask the butcher to remove it)

Mix the spices together in a small bowl and add the oil. Stir with a fork. This can be doubled or tripled depending on the number of fish you have.

Rinse off the fish (which has been stored in the coldest part of your refrigerator for no more than 48 hours) and trim off any excess scales. Pat it dry with a paper towel and place on a clean surface. If you've kept the head on the fish the stuffing will be easier. If you haven't, you're going to need to make the cavity of the fish bigger. Taking a large sharp knife, and with the fish resting on it's side, you're going to hold up the top half of the fish and slide your knife along the spine cutting through the ribs. Flip the fish over and complete on the other side. This gives you a bigger pocket for stuffing yumminess.

Now take the spice mixture and rub it on the inside and the outside of the fish. Take a handful of the leek mixture and stuff it into the fish. Place the fish on a plate and take to the grill.

Veggie Foil Packets

Any collection of veggies will work so pick what looks good. I created two foil packs. One consisted of carrots and potatoes which take about the same amount of time to cook. The other foil pack consisted of mushrooms, zucchini, and green beans. Cut the veggies into bite-sized pieces and toss with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. I tossed in a very large pinch of dried basil but any fresh herb would also work. Now take a piece of foil that's about the length of a cookie sheet. Fold it in half with the dull side on the outside. The shiny side will reflect the heat while the dull side will absorb it. Now fold the two raw edges toward each other in 1/2" increments. Fold again, and then fold once more. Scoop your veggies into the packet and fold the top down as you did the sides. You now have a tightly sealed steam packet. Take to the grill.

Basmati Rice, Flavored with Dates, Almonds and Cinnamon

2 cups of basmati rice
3 cups of water
1/4 cup of chopped dried dates
1/8 cup of slivered almonds
1 teaspoon of cinnamon

Pour all of the ingredients into the rice cooker, cover and turn on. This will take about twenty minutes to cook. Once it is finished fluff with a fork to distribute the dates and almonds and move to a serving dish. (If you don't have basmati rice, adjust the water according to package directions.)

Tomato Salad with Fresh Mozzarella

5 roma tomatoes sliced in rounds
1/2 pound of small fresh mozzarella balls that have been cut in half
Large pinch of fresh or dried basil
1 large clove of garlic, minced
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper

In a glass casserole dish (or any other non-aluminum pan) make one layer of tomatoes. Add a sprinkle of all the other ingredients, reserving the mozzarella for the top. Repeat until you've run out of tomatoes. Add the mozzarella balls to the top and sprinkle more of the other ingredients on top. Cover and let sit in the refrigerator for 1/2 hour or more. Serve with slices of fresh bread. You'll soak the bread in the "gravy" that gets created before adding a slice of tomato and chunks of mozzarella to the top and eating like an open-faced sandwich.

Meanwhile, back at the grill:

I'll assume that you've got the coals started. After they've started to turn white, but before they're ready for even cooking, add the packets of veggies to the grill and cover it. It will take about 10-15 minutes for these to cook, which should be about the same amount of time it takes the coals to be evenly heated. Remove from the grill, carefully lift the cooking grill, and rearrange coals as necessary to get even heating. Place an ice cube on the grill and if it is melted in less than 30 seconds you're ready to cook. If it takes longer than 30 seconds, then you'll want to add another ring of coals to the outside so you have enough heat to finish cooking the fish.

Place the fish on the grill with the tails of the fish pointed toward the cooler zone of the grill. Cover and cook for 8-10 minutes. Once the bottom skin of the fish is bubbled and cracked and black you're ready to flip it to the other side. Cover the grill again and cook for another 8-10 minutes. When you can use a butter knife to slice through the back of the fish and can see that the meet along the spine is no longer translucent, then the fish is ready to eat. While you're grilling the fish, check to make sure the veggies are done enough for your liking. If they aren't you can add them back to the grill while the fish cooks. Just be sure to not put the packets on top of the fish.

Once the meat of the fish is opaque and no longer translucent, remove to a plate and serve. Scoop 1/2 of the leeks from each fish to a plate. You should be able to peel the skin off the fish quite easily. It is edible but I won't blame you if you don't eat it. Using a pie turner or other small spatula, try to remove the meat of the fillet while leaving as many of the bones behind as possible. It takes a lot of practice to be able to do this the way Julia Child could and by this time your guests probably won't care that the fish isn't photo-worthy, just that it's on their plate. Flip the fish over and repeat with the other fillet. Serve with the veggies and rice. Place the sliced bread and tomato salad in the middle of the table, toast each other with a glass of Saracco or Sauvignon Blanc (or a cider) and dig in.

This is one of my favorite types of dinners to make. There are no fancy techniques, but the flavors are simple and meld perfectly to balance each other. It's all simple slicing and chopping for the most part and the flavor of the food relies on fresh ingredients instead of complex sauces. This is also one of those dinners where your friends are going to be pulling fish bones out of their mouth and dipping slices of bread into tomatoes so there will be a lot of finger licking. It's not the perfect dinner to serve when meeting your partner's parents for the first time, but it is a wonderful dish to serve for those friends who could be family.

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