If you like to be a bit adventurous with your outdoor cooking, you might like to try something that I learned about only recently: cooking fish directly on hot charcoal, without using a food grate or pot. You can still use your barbecue or grill of course - just without the grate.
“Cook fish directly in the fire?” you ask incredulously? “But fish is delicate? It will fall apart.”
Well yes, so it will. But the trick is that although you don’t cook it in a pot or on a tray, or even on a grill rack, you cook it inside a protective layer or two. The first layer is provided by the fish itself. You leave the skin on and indeed you usually don’t even scale it (except with the dough method, where scaling is recommended.
The second layer is usually an encrustation of moist salt, but it can also be salty dough or even something like an old newspaper, that literally chars or even burns to ash during the cooking process. The salt or dough doesn’t burn up, but you don’t eat it: you break it off, cut the fish open and eat the fish inside, scooping it out.
The skin provides a vital layer of protection as it prevents the fish inside from developing an overly salty taste if you bake it in a salt crust. Similarly, if you bake it in newspaper, the skin provides an extra layer of protection that keeps the ash away from the flesh that you actually eat.
I will give you some idea of how to do it here, however if you are a little apprehensive about exposing your fish (and taste buds) to wood ash, I will also provide a more “civilized” alternative.
The ingredients you will need (to serve 2-4 people depending on portion size) are as follows:
● 1x sea bass (weighing about 3 lbs) or alternatively Tuna or Salmon
● 3 ½ pounds of sea salt
● 5 large egg whites,
● 5 cloves of garlic with skins on
● 2 sprigs of thyme, (just the leaves)
● 1/2 lemon
● 30g of butter
● 1 tablespoon olive oil
● You will also need a frying pan.
1. Start off by making a wood fire. (You can use lumpwood charcoal, as a long as it is chemical-free, but I would urge you to use wood, if possible. It takes longer, but it is worth it.) Aim to get the temperature up to 220 C. (It will actually get higher and then subside. See our TIPS AND TRICKS - How to Make a Wood Fire)
2. While the fire gets going, in the kitchen (or using a frying pan on the fire when it begins to settle down) fry the garlic cloves in olive oil for between one and two minutes each side.
3. When the garlic cools down, peel it and chop or dice it.
4. In the same frying pan, melt the butter, add the thyme leaves.
5. Squeeze some lemon over the frying pan, letting the juices fall into the pan.
6. Let the wood burn and settle down to smoldering embers that glow red (you do not have to wait for a white ash to form).
7. Beat the egg whites until they froth.
8. Mix the salt, with egg whites into a thick paste.
9. Apply half the paste to one side of the fish.
10. Brush some of the butter mixture onto it.
11. Turn the fish over and apply most of the remaining mixture to the other side. (Keep some in reserve. I’ll explain why below.)
12. Brush the remainder of the butter mixture onto that side.
13. Place the fish on the centre of the smoldering wooden embers and use charcoal tongs or a small shovel, to put some of the smoldering wooden embers on top of the fish (as much as will stay in place).
14. Let it cook for about 30 minutes or until the crust is hard and golden brown.
15. Take the fish out of the fire carefully, break through the salt crust in the thickest part and test to see if the fish comes from the bone.
16. If it does, serve and eat. If not apply some more of the salt paste and put it back for 5 - 10 minutes.
17. When it is ready take it off, let it rest for 10 minutes, then break off the salty crust and serve.
If you are not adventurous enough to try this in an open fire, do it on a tray in a wood fired oven.
Those of us old enough to remember the sixties (or the seventies if you live in the north of England) will remember how they used to serve takeaway fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. In fact as far as I remember, the newspaper was always the outer layer. There was always an inner layer of clean white paper. And the large-cut, soft, squidgy chips were also in a greaseproof bag.
Nevertheless the health and safety people came along and some time in the past, newspaper was banned from being used to wrap food - even as an outer layer to protect the clothes of the hapless consumer.
However, health and safety people can only clamp down on businesses. The individual still has some autonomy in this sceptered isle of ours. And it is possible not only to wrap fish in newspaper but even to cook it in newsprint! Again, remember that the fish skin provides an extra layer of protection. Anyway, this method was popularized by Jamie Oliver.
First the ingredients:
● 2 trout, gutted
● A bunch of coriander
● 2 lemongrass stalks, tough outer leaves removed, trimmed
● 6 kaffir lime leaves – fresh, frozen or dried
● 4 garlic cloves
● A thumb-sized piece of ginger, sliced
● 1 red chilli (optional), sliced
● 4 limes, sliced, plus wedges to serve
● Olive oil
● Baking paper (optional)
● Unwaxed kitchen string
Now the preparation:
1. Light a wood or charcoal fire. (Charcoal may be harder to light, but it will be ready quicker.)
2. Rinse the fish under cold water and dry it with kitchen towels.
3. Cut the stalks from some fresh coriander and place in a mortar.
4. Take the outer leaves from the lemongrass, trim and place in the mortar.
5. Peel, slice and add the garlic and ginger to the mortar.
6. Slice the chilli and add to the mortar.
7. Add the lime leaves to the mortar.
8. Use the pestle to semi-crush the ingredients to release the flavours. (You do NOT have to make it into a paste.)
9. For each of the fish, take a large double sheet of newspaper (if you’re a broadsheet reader, you’re at an advantage over tabloid readers) and line with greaseproof paper.
10. Cut three limes into slices and place a line of the slices in the middle of each newspaper.
11. Lay the fish onto the greaseproof paper and stuff the fish’s cavity with half the mixture from the mortar
12. Sprinkle or rub with sea salt and drizzle olive oil all over each one.
13. Top with more lime slices and follow up with another sprinkling of sea salt and a dash more olive oil.
14. Fold the newspaper around the stuffed fish and tie it up with string.
15. Put the parcels in a bucket of water and let them soak for 3-5 minutes.
16. When the charcoal is covered in a white ash, put the fish parcels directly onto the hot coals and use tongs to place some of the charcoal on top of the fish (as much as will stay in place).
17. Barbecue the fish parcels, uncovered, for 30 minutes or until the flesh is firm. The newspaper will be black, but don’t worry – the important thing is that the fish will be cooked to perfection.
18. Remove the fish from the paper, drizzle with any juices, top with coriander leaves and serve with lime wedges.
This method is similar to the salt crust method but instead of a salt and egg white mixture, the crust is made of a salty dough. As in the case of the salt crust (and for that matter the newspaper), you don’t eat the outer casing, but should treat it like a throwaway cooking utensil.
The following method should produce a tasty fish with a mildly salty taste. The quantities are quite large, aimed at a dinner party of around ten people.
The ingredients are:
● A 3½ kg red emperor fish
● 5 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
● 5 sprigs dill
● 1 lemon
● 1 brown onion
● Ground black pepper
In addition to this you also have to make the salt dough itself. For this, you will also need:
● 1½ kg flour
● 1.2 kg table salt
● 1½ litres water
Now the preparation:
1. If it is a wood fire, light it now. If it isto be a charcoal fire, wait till I tell you.
2. Mix the flour and salt in a large bowl.
3. Add 1⅛ litres (2 pints) of the water and mix well. If it is too dry, add more water until it forms a firm but single lump.
4. Put the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until it is firm and smooth.
5. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
6. If it is to be a charcoal fire, light it now.
7. While the dough is in the fridge, scale, gill and gut the fish.
8. Rinse the cavity of the fish and dry with paper towels.
9. Sprinkle pepper into the cavity
10. Slice the onion and lemon and then put them inside the cavity
11. Chop the dill and parsley and put inside the cavity
12. Roll out the dough into an oval or rectangle about 1 centimetre thick.
13. Put the fish in the middle of the dough and close the dough around it, pinching it shut at the seams. Make sure that the dough is packed tightly around the fish and that there are no air pockets inside.
14. Put the dough-wrapped fish directly onto the hot coals and use tongs to place some of the charcoal on top of the fish package - as much as will stay in place.
15. Cook the fish in the dough for 40-45 minutes. You will know it is done when the pastry begins to go brown.
16. Let it rest for a similar time to the cooking time (or slightly more)
17. Break the crust away, use a sharp, serrated knife to slice the fish down the length, remove the bones in one piece and then use a large spoon to serve the fish onto a serving plate or individual plates.
Ideally, this dish should be served with steamed baby potatoes and green salad with vinaigrette dressing.
If you are not in an adventurous mood you can cook this in an enclosed barbecue on the food rack.
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