Monday, May 31, 2010

Grilled Salmon!

When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest, I could not eat enough salmon to suit me, and at the time, salmon was extraordinarily reasonably-priced, in-season.

Salmon cooked outside, in the fresh Northwest air, on a charcoal grill has to be one of the finest culinary experiences available, anytime, anywhere. If you've been in the Pacific Northwest for any amount of time, you'll already be familiar with the popularity of good local fresh "salmon bbq"—it took me a little while to realize that doesn't actually mean salmon smothered in a tangy catsup-based sauce; rather, barbecued salmon is simply salmon cooked on a barbecue grill. The best part of that, of course, is that there's no need to wait for a special occasion. Salmon is healthy, delicious, and remarkably easy to prepare.

First, of course, you need a nice piece of fish. I like to plan for 6-8 ounces of fresh fish (uncooked weight) per person served. If you're serving particularly hearty eaters, though, figure 10-12 ounces. Before you decide exactly how much fish you might, you may also want to plan ahead and think about how nice it would be to have cold grilled salmon tomorrow, to top a salad or to mix with a little mayo and some capers.

There are a couple of things you need to know to buy good fish. You can find pretty reasonably-priced salmon at your local supermarket—but chances are it's going to be previously frozen. Now, that's not a deal-breaker by any means, but you want to be certain the flesh is firm and the odor isn't fishy or strong, the color should be bright and your piece of fish should smell like ocean. Whether you prefer the tail-end or the head end will depend partly on how well-done you like your salmon cooked, and whether you like your fish ever-so-slightly fattier. (Salmon fat, by the way, contains an enormous amount of extraordinarily healthy substances, so don't be worrying about the fat content, okay?) The tail-end, for example, is a good deal thinner, so will cook much more quickly. I prefer a nice thick fillet for grilling, because you can cook a single piece of fish big enough to serve everyone. If you happen to be serving a sizable group, you can most certainly grill salmon whole, as well. This is preferable, as far as I'm concerned, because cooking the fish in a single large piece gives you a little more leeway in terms of heat and cooking time.

I like to use a good natural lump charcoal, rather than briquets; again, though, you've got quite a lot of room to use your own favorite grilling technique. You can even use your propane grill and no one will give you any funny looks. If you've not grilled fish before, here's one sure-fire method that will please any salmon-lover, even that picky aunt who always tells you your marinade is a little too strong:
  • Start your charcoal about a half-hour or forty minutes before you plan to begin cooking. You want a nice, hot grill; hot enough to cook a steak, and your charcoal should be evenly and steadily glowing white on the edges.
  • Take your piece of fish out of the refrigerator and let it warm on the counter for ten or fifteen minutes. Squeeze a lemon and chop some fresh dill into a bowl, and save about half your lemon/dill mixture to use on the grill, when you turn the fish.
  • Just before you're ready to pop it onto the grill, rub the fish all over with a little olive oil, lemon, and fresh chopped dill. This is important: OIL THE FISH, NOT THE GRILL. Do I need to say that louder, or did you get it the first time? If you oil the grill, your fish will stick. Also? Don't use any salt on your raw fish. It only draws out the yummy juices before your fish ever gets to the grill.
  • No matter if you're cooking steaks or a fillet, you only want to turn the fish once, so you don't dry it out. Lay the fillet flesh-side to the grill, which should be hot enough to sear grill-marks into the yummy pink of the salmon. Don't poke at it. You only need to leave the fish flesh-side down long enough to get a good sear, then turn the fillet so the skin-side is on the grill, and baste your fish with a bit of your lemon and dill mixture.
  • Don't overcook your fish. As soon as the thickest part of your fillet begins to separate into flakes when you pull gently with a fork, your fish is done. Serve immediately, with a nice bearnaise sauce if you're feeling fancy, or wedges of lemon if you like to keep it simple.
Most of all, have fun; drink good beer or a fresh, crisp wine, and enjoy your grilled salmon with people you like spending time with. Happy spring, everyone!