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Fish, Fire & Foil

If you’re like me, you fire up the grill all year round, but at least twice as often during these warmer months. Keeping cooking heat outdoors is one reason during these Dog Days, but moreover, I think it’s those warmer months that inspire us to want tobe outdoors with the elements more so than during the cooler months when more of a “nesting” instinct kicks in and things like soups and stews are the table fare of choice.
I like just about anything cooked on the grill: chicken, pork, ribs, a thick-cut steak (I’ve become quite partial to bone-in rib eyes lately) … all are far superior when cooked over an open flame. Vegetables too are great grilled, but I think that seafood benefits most of all when sizzled outdoors. The debate continues between those who prefer charcoal briquettes over propane, and for the record, I prefer my gas-fired Weber to messing with a dirty bag of Kingsford and all the time it takes to get the coals glowing just right. But that’s your choice to make.

Whether you patronize a local seafood store, catch it yourself or are the beneficiary of a friend or neighbor who always catches more than they can consume themselves, this time of the year is best for getting fresh seafood. Fish filets, lobsters, clams, crab legs… all of it can be grilled. However, I think that more seafood is overcooked on grills than anywhere else. This is due to the very delicate nature of seafood, the relatively small amount of time it takes to cook as opposed to heartier meats, and the fact that those flames which sear a steak tend to just burn and char seafood.
Growing up in N.J., grilling was always an art form in my family and we grilled even in the dead of winter. I consider myself quite a grill master and I think that knowledge was gained those frigid February nights when Dad wanted a steak but didn’t want to stand out in sub-freezing temperatures. “Why do you think I wanted children?” he’d quip. (That reason was also given when it came to mowing the lawn, transplanting shrubbery, cleaning windows, etc.) Dad used to like to exercise “The Power of the Finger” as he called it. “Watch how much I can get done just by pointing this one little finger.” And while on the subject of winter grilling, I’ll share one nearly tragic grilling story from my youth.
Our grill was situated on the outer corner of the patio, right in front of a large stand of small and tall evergreens. For aesthetics sake we had purchased an extra-long gas hose so that the propane tank could be hidden several feet away, camouflaged in the shrubs. (This was before grills were designed with a cabinet incorporating an area for storage of the tank.)
We fed the birds a lot during the winter and as such had a lot of other critters around, pilfering the seeds on the ground that the birds flipped out of the feeders. Chief amongst those critters were chipmunks who, for reasons I’ll never understand, had an affinity for chewing through things like Christmas light extension cords as well as extra-long propane grill hoses hidden deep within a stand of tinder-dry evergreens. So, I went out one night to light the grill, first opening the valve on the tank which my dad always insisted be shut off for safety’s sake. I then opened the grill’s lid, lit a match and nothing happened, although I could smell propane.
I reached into the bushes, pulled out the tank and could find nothing wrong. I struck another match, put it to the burners and watched the strangest thing happen. The flames took a few seconds to ignite and instead of seeing some small blue jets down beneath the grating, orange/ yellow flames shot up about three feet. This was caused by the same sort of gas/air mixture behavior we all learned about in grade school science class when we’d wrap our hand around the bottom of a Bunsen Burner (do they even still have them in schools anymore?), altering the mixture and causing the flame to flare upward.
Fortunately, my face was not over the grill when this happened and I deemed it best to shut the whole process down. But when I turned the knob to the off position, the flames dropped in an instant, but then shot out the bottom vents of the grill. Now those of you that know propane know it’s a heavier-than-air gas and when leaked will seek out the lowest point and just lay there in an invisible puddle until a heavy breeze dissipates it.
This particular night was one of those crystal clear, perfectly still chilly nights and unknown to me a good bit of gas had leaked out right around the middle of the hose where the chipmunks had used it as a chew toy. So as the flames shot out the bottom of the grill the gas ignited and the tinder-dry evergreens burst into flames.
I was a pretty quick-thinking kid so I cranked the valve on the tank shut and my mind immediately thought “Need hose!” but there was to be one small snag. During winter we shut off all the outside spigots, open the pipe’s bleeder valves in the basement, then drain and coil up the hoses to be stored in the basement as well.
Since such autumnal chores fell under the dictates of “The Finger” I knew very well how to reverse the winterization process. I bolted into the house headed for the basement stairs, yelling, “The bushes are on fire!” and was down the stairs in two steps. I went right to the required valve and, not wanting to waste a precious second, cranked the red knob open without first screwing shut the bleeder screw and took a stiff spray of water right in the face.
I then scooped up the coiled hose, made it up the stairs in three steps and bolted back out to the patio, passing through the kitchen where my mother was not very calmly on the phone calling the fire department and my dad was yelling for everyone to move to the front side of the house because he was unaware that I had moved the propane tank from out of the bushes so as far as he knew there was a full propane tank in the middle of a conflagration of inflamed evergreens now fully engulfed, the flames reaching over 20-feet into the air.
I yelled to him that I had moved the tank as I ran over to the outside spigot, screwed on the hose in record time and started playing fireman. It took less than a minute to get the flames under control and as they started dying completely, I could hear the wail of the volunteer fire siren and it wasn’t more than two minutes later that the first of the volunteer firemen arrived on the scene. Both they and Dad congratulated me for my quick actions and we then started examining the grill, tank and hose and soon saw the section where the chipmunks had committed their mischief.
Now for the foil part of the title. As stated above, fish is very delicate and often overcooked on a grill. But I have a trick that I’m sure many of you who haven’t already employed will now give a try. It’s really quite simple: Get yourself a roll of some heavy-duty tin foil. Pull out enough so that you have a length double the width of your grill. Fold the foil in half so it’s doubled-up. Next, on all four sides of the foil sheet, fold the edges up somewhere around 1/4-1/2 inch and then seal the corners so that you’ve created a sort of shallow grilling pan. Now spray that pan with a liberal dose of non-stick cooking spray like Pam. (And if you don’t already know, years ago I started using non-stick spray on the grilling grate itself so nothing sticks. BEWARE! Apply the spray BEFORE you light the grill, otherwise, you’ll learn how a flamethrower works.

Depending upon what type of seafood you’re grilling you may or may not want to poke some holes in the foil for a bit more grilling effect. If you’re cooking something marinated then I’d say no holes, especially if the marinade contains oil. This method works especially well with shrimp kabobs since it tends to cook the veggies beyond the “barely cooked” stage while not totally overcooking the shrimps. A variation of this is to put your fish and vegetables in a foil pouch, sealed tight and placed on the grill. Employing the foil pan you’ll find that more delicate fish like flounder or tilapia come out wonderfully, even if buttered. And if you’ve never had grill-cooked little neck clams in a nice garlic/lemon/butter sauce, you’re missing a true delight.
But now I’ll reveal what I and many I’ve shared it with think may be the best grilled seafood you can imagine. For years I knew of nothing more to do with a swordfish steak than grilling it, then drizzling it with hollandaise sauce. Never again!
During my two-decade stint in the South Carolina low country, I was friends with the crew of a longline fishing vessel, the F/V Bette Boop out of Shem Creek, Mount Pleasant off Charleston Harbor. The boat’s first mate, John O’Brien, gave me the following recipe once as he handed me a big Zip-Loc bag of fresh swordfish steaks. Sorry, I’m a seat-of-the-pants sort of chef who rarely measures ingredients so you’ll just have to figure out the proportions for yourself.
Cut the steaks into chunks, about the size you’d do for kebobs.
In a Cuisinart, first chop a few cloves of peeled garlic as fine as you can, add equal amounts of peanut oil and Teriyaki, then a heavy dusting of powdered ginger. Put the Cuisinart on the highest setting and mix until it seems to turn into an orange-ish golden froth.
Place the swordfish chunks in a big Zip-Loc, pour in that sauce, then let marinate for at least an hour. Once the grill is good and hot and you’ve constructed your foil pan (NO holes), pour all that goodness into the foil pan you formed and use tongs to flip the chunks every few minutes until they turn golden brown… the peanut oil/Teriyaki will caramelize. If you want it to be a little crispier, once almost done, poke holes in the foil to drain away the marinade but be careful when that oil hits the flames. Oh, and make sure there are no chipmunks around!

Next to the full body cringe I do whenever I hear someone refer to the “Inter-coastal Waterway” (for the last time for Chrissake, it’s the INTRA- coastal Waterway!), I do likewise when it comes to the improper use of the phrase “Bar-b-que.”
The word comes from the language of a Caribbean Indian tribe called the Taino who used a raised wooden cooking grate called a “barbacoa” and was first referred to in a Spanish explorer’s account of the West Indies written in 1526. So the word originally refers more to the equipment/method/process of cooking rather than the actual food being cooked. The first known instance of barbecue printed in English was in A New Voyage Around The World by William Dampier, published in 1697. As evidenced, the spelling was already evolving to make it easier for English speakers to pronounce. By 1755, the word “barbecue” was included in Samuel Johnson’s The Dictionary of the English Language.
Many food cultures in the U.S. evolved regionally, starting with the indoor kitchens of eastern cities. But as our nation expanded westward, most things were cooked outdoors over open fires, often done over many hours for the portions were large (like an entire beef flank, or a whole split hog) to accommodate the feeding of entire encampments sometimes. So the word barbecue became more of a noun (the food being cooked) than a verb (the method of cooking) and this became the norm in the south and the Midwestern U.S., with beef brisket, pork and chicken being the most recognized forms of barbecue to this day.
So remember, if you invite friends over, fire up the grill and throw on some hotdogs and hamburgers, you are having a COOKOUT and GRILLING, NOT barbecuing. But, if you began some slow cooking on the grill or the smoker early in the morning and have friends over in the afternoon for some succulent brisket or fall-off-the-bone ribs, then yes, you may call it, barbecue.