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Sunday, July 21

Gapers Block

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As the heat wave laps at the shores of my kitchen, I find myself reclining in front of the window air conditioner on the opposite side of my home. But a girl has to eat a balanced meal, even if all she really wants to eat is ice cubes. And in hot weather I have cravings for fish. But heating up my kitchen just to get it all stinky with lingering fish smells makes me want to reach for a take-out menu instead.

Thankfully grilling fish brings out sweeter flavors than you can get in a skillet on your stovetop. Cooking outside also plays into my desire to not heat up my humble abode. And waiting for the grill to warm up gives me a chance to sip on a glass of mint iced tea and sit very still in the shade and wait for a breeze.

Grilling fish fillets can be tough but grilling fish steaks is usually easier, depending on the type of fish. I've heard that the easiest way to grill fish of any type or cut is by using a grill basket. It makes sense. But I don't have one.

But what I do have is a whole tilapia. I got a good deal on a fish that weighs about 2 to 2-1/2 pounds and I'm excited about cooking it. And in case you've never done it, it's a lot easier to pull the meat away from fish bones after the fish has been cooked. And since the skin and skeletal structure of a fish makes it easier to flip than a white fish fillet, the only special equipment I need is a metal spatula.

Before you start thinking that cutting apart a fish is way too hard, or that you'll never be able to tell when the fish is done, rest assured. Cooking an entire fish is one of the easiest ways to cook fish. You're probably not going to get Julia Child-style presentation results when you serve your first one, but unless you're filming this to get a show on the Food Network, it doesn't really matter because your dinner will be so tasty that no one will care that their plate doesn't look one put before them at Nobu.

One of the best things about cooking a whole fish is that once the fish is gutted, it has a pocket which is easy to stuff full of herbs, spices, vegetables, rubs, etc. And as the fish steams on the inside, the steam carries your flavorings through the fish. And with a basic fish, like tilapia, there are a huge variety of flavorings that can be used.

The main thing you should keep in mind when picking a fish to grill is that size does matter. You at least need to pick something that will fit on your grill. And keep in mind that the larger the fish is, the harder it is going to be to flip it. Fish that weigh anywhere from about 1-1/4 pounds to 3 pounds should be fairly easy to manage. But if you're nervous about breaking a fish in half while you flip it, buy two spatulas, or get one of those fancy fish spatulas. (I don't have one of these either, so don't think you have to have it before you can cook fish on the grill.)

How do you pick out a fish? The best way is to ask the fishmonger. Say that you're grilling a whole fish, mention what your flavorings are going to be, and you should get a suggestion or two based on what they have in stock. Tilapia, trout, grouper, snapper and catfish are decent options that will be good with most flavoring options. But rely on the fishmongers to tell you what they have that will be best. If you're worried that you're getting sold an old fish, look the fish in the eye. If it seems cloudy, it's on the older side. Ask them to pull up the gill. The flesh around the gill should be pink to red (depending on the fish) and not gray. Each fish is a different color, but gray is not good.

If you're going to keep your fish at home for more than 48 hours before you cook it, throw it in the freezer. While it is in your refrigerator, keep it in the back on the top so it is in the coldest section of your fridge. Once you're ready to cook with it, run it under cool water to rinse it off. Open the stomach cavity and rinse that thoroughly as well. Remove anything that looks icky and left behind.

Now you're ready to prepare your flavorings. Here are just a couple of choices. Feel free to experiment with your own flavors.

Option 1: Leek and tarragon
1 large leek
1-2 tablespoons of Olive oil
garlic powder
1/4 cup of tarragon

Cut the leek in half lengthwise and cut each half in half. Rinse it in a bowl of cool water to remove any sand or dirt. Cut the leeks to be about the length of the fish cavity. Shake them dry and put them in a bowl with a tablespoon or two of olive oil, salt, pepper, 1/2 teaspoon (or more) of garlic powder and the chopped tarragon. Use your hands to toss everything until the leeks are coated.

Option 2: Caribbean spices
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 large pinch of cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1-2 tablespoons of olive oil

Add all the dry spices into a bowl and stir well with a fork to combine. Add as little olive oil as you can to get a paste that you can spread in the cavity of the fish as well as in the grooves that you will cut on the outside of the fish.

Option 3: Sour and spicy
1/2 teaspoon of salt
juice from 2 limes
3 tablespoons of minced onion or shallot
2 cloves of garlic that are smashed and then roughly chopped
1/4 teaspoon of turmeric
1/4-1/2 teaspoon of Sriracha (spicy rooster sauce)
1-2 tablespoons of olive or vegetable oil
1 stick of fresh lemongrass (split lengthwise if cooking several smaller fish)
4-8 thin slices of ginger

Combine all ingredients except for the lemongrass and ginger in a bowl and stir with a spoon until it is smooth. Use either a spoon or your fingers to smear the sauce through the cavity of the fish and the grooves that you will cut in the fish. Add the lemongrass to the cavity and spread out the slice of ginger.

Once you get your spice mix ready and your grill (charcoal or propane) is heating up, you're ready to prepare the fish. Once the fish has been cleaned, lay it on a cutting board or pan. With a very sharp knife, cut on a diagonal every two inches apart between the head and the tail, and about 1/2 inch beyond the skin. The slit doesn't need to go from the spine to the belly, but longer is better than shorter. Place your flavorings inside the cavity and smear the spices into the slits you cut into the outside of the fish. Once the fish has all the flavorings added to it, add a little olive oil to the palm of your hand and brush it across the fish on both sides. Let the fish sit out for at least 10 minutes, but not much more than 30 minutes. This should let the flavorings soak into the fish without worrying about the fish going bad while you wait to grill it.

The grill itself should be at medium heat before you add your fish to it. If you want to use the high heat to quickly cook some vegetables that have been put on skewers and sprinkled with olive oil, salt, and pepper that's a good idea. But you want the heat to be medium and more indirect when you add the fish to it. It's best to spread your coals to the outside of your grill area and leave the middle free. If one half of the grill is hotter than the other, put the head of the fish to that end — the tail will cook faster since it is thinner. Clean your grill off as much as possible to remove all the crusty bits that you can. Take a paper towel or two and soak it in olive oil or vegetable oil. Use your tongs to rub the paper towels across the grill top. Oiling the grill and oiling the fish will reduce your chances of having the fish stick.

If you take one piece of advice seriously, please take this one. Flipping things from side to side on the grill is never a good idea. People have the urge to keep poking at things and flipping them over and smooshing them with a spatula. Don't!

Being careful to not touch the grill, grab the fish and place it just shy of the middle of the grill. You're going to want to roll the fish over, so put it spine side toward the center and make sure there will be room to roll the fish without having to move it. Set a timer, or assign someone time duties, for 5 minutes. Don't touch it. Don't cover it. Just put it on and watch it. Now use your spatula to slide it under the fish. You're not trying to flip the fish now, you just want it to not be stuck. Let it cook for another 3-4 minutes. Using two spatulas if necessary, slide the spatula back under the fish and check to make sure it's not stuck. Now gently roll it over on its back. Let the fish cook for 6 more minutes. Use a fork and knife, or two forks to pull apart one of the slits. The fish should be just barely opaque all the way through to the bones. If the fish is not quite opaque (a rule of thumb is 10 minutes per inch of thickness) place the cover on the fish and let it cook for two more minutes. Test another slit. Feel free to carefully roll the fish back to its original side and test the slits on the side to make sure both halves of the fish are cooked through. If you're not sure that you're going to be able to use the spatula, or two, to carry the fish from the grill to your place, tear off a piece of foil larger than your fish and place it next to the fish. Roll the fish onto the foil and, being careful to not burn your fingertips, use the sides of foil like a sling to bring the fish to your cutting board.

Now that your fish is cooked, you're ready to remove the meat from the skeleton and put it on a plate. The first thing you want to do is use a knife and your fingers to carefully peel back the skin from one side. It should come off in large pieces. Use a sharp knife to cut the meat along the spine to the bone. Cut off the tail of the fish. Slip a knife (a dull butter knife is fine if you're worried about cutting yourself) between the meat and the ribs and work it up as high as the knife will allow. Just behind the head, cut down to the bones and slide the knife between the meat and the bones. You should have freed the entire side of fish and you're ready to cut it in half. Carefully use a spatula to pick it up from the fish and place it on a plate. Carefully flip the fish over and complete with the other side.

Place this on a plate and serve with a green salad and the skewered vegetables. Or you can make some of those grilled dinner pillows, which can cook directly over the coals while the fish cooks in the center of the grill.

Like most dishes, this will be easier to cook the third time than the first time. But it's not so difficult the first time that you'll regret you passed up the hot dogs and pre-formed frozen hamburger patties. If you've got flavoring ideas for fish, feel free to share them in the comments. I think it will be a while before I turn my oven on again, how about you?

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tozé / August 5, 2006 5:49 AM

the best fish for grilling are undoubtly sea brimm, sea bass and mackarel. there are a few others, such as the tilapia you used (i'm not even sure you can find sea bass or sea brimm where you live, i live by the sea), but as far as grilling goes, i rather grill my fish with the scales and not gutted. granted, this will sour some type of fish, but most will retain the juices from the fat, and since you grilled with the scales, once it's done the skin will peel whole off, like a coat.

also, the best way to move a fish around the grill is grabbing by it's head with a metal tweezer. it's one of the hardest parts of the fish, and if you smash it a bit it won't really matter since you'll probably not eat it.

finally (whew!), when picking fish, look at it's eyes. if they're clear as glass, they're fresh. bloodshot eyes are not so good. checking the gills for blood is also a good idea, altough less scrupulous individuals might smear blood there to make it look fresh. :)


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