On Grilling Fish in the Early Morning
One of my favorite visceral feelings is the warmth of a fire early in the morning. As a kid, we would boat out to the barrier islands of Georgia and camp for the weekend, wake up to the sound of a fire crackling, setting aglow the dewy morning. Later in life I helped my partner cook a whole hog, catching a few hours of sleep in the early morning as they kept watch of the red orange embers. For me, this love of a morning fire aligns almost with a craving for breakfast a fish dish—catfish and grits, roasted mackerel, pickles, and miso soup, even maybe a can of sardines and fresh rice if I’m strapped for time and the pantry is near empty. It brings me back to those camping trips, the salty smell of the shore wafting through the marsh.
On this particular Friday, overcast and sopping wet as it was, a grilled snapper with a squeeze of lemon and a leaf of tender napa cabbage felt like the best possible breakfast. I like the idea of keeping the fish whole in this application, not only because it’s aesthetically stunning, but because it requires little to no preparation. Most grocery stores and seafood markets will happily gut and scale their freshest catch for you, all you have to do is season it a little, let the fire get hot, and practice patience (maybe the hardest step).
Here’s how I did it:
Procure a fish, and this really could be any fish you like. I chose snapper but anything from rainbow trout to branzino to sea bass would do. Have your fishmonger scale and gut your fish. Take it home.
In the morning, about an hour before you’re ready to eat, get your grill going. If the sun is just barely rising and the fog is slowly lifting from the mountains, even better. I prefer charcoal but a gas grill always works. Get it ripping hot.
While your grill gets ripping hot, season your fish with a healthy amount of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Again, this is all about personal preference, but I love to K.I.S.S. and let the fish sing. If you like other seasonings, follow your heart.
Once that grill is smoking, wet a rag with olive oil and wipe down your grate, and place your fish on the grill. Now, leave it alone. Your fish needs time to cook, and as the hot grill grates do their thing, they will release the skin of your fish from the grill for easy flipping when it’s ready. One of the ways you can tell it’s ready is by looking inside the fish and watching the flesh turn from translucent to opaque. Depending on the size of your fish this will take different amounts of time but I would guess anywhere in the window from 8 - 14 minutes makes sense. Another way is by gently using your spatula to lift the fish, if it starts to fight you, it's probably not ready yet. If it lets up easy, you’re good to go.
Flip your fish to the other side. Use the same method you used for the first side to measure doneness.
While your fish cooks, pull apart the leaves of a napa cabbage, slice the cheeks of a lemon, and pick a bundle of cilantro. Grab your beautiful East Fork Serving Platter in your favorite glaze (mine is Molasses which we don't produce anymore but for today Panna Cotta will do just fine) and arrange the cabbage as the perfect nest for your fish which is almost done cooking.
Ensure that your fish is done cooking, and when it is, transfer it to this beautiful green bed. Artfully place your bouquet of cilantro on the plate along with your lemon cheeks. Drizzle the whole shebang with The Olive Oil and sprinkle generously with Carolina Flake Salt (Smoked if ya nasty). Now grab your Sabre French Serving Set and pull your fish away from its skeleton. Squeeze the lemon on the flesh. Make a perfect bite for yourself, with the napa as a vessel for fish, lemon juice, cilantro, and a pinch more of salt. You could also throw in Black Garlic Shoyu, Shichimi Togarashi, Fly by Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp, Tarragon Vinegar, or Purple Sweet Potato Vinegar for another layer of deliciousness.
Last Step: Eat to your heart’s content, and share with the people around you.