Make a big, fresh impression as you kick off summer grilling season
"Go big or go home!" You're probably familiar with that popular expression, which some accounts say started in the 1990s with an ad slogan here in Southern California, where I live.
That phrase often makes sense to me when talking about cooking. But I don't interpret it to mean serving huge portions. Instead, I believe in making big impressions by preparing the finest-quality ingredients in impressive, wonderfully flavorful ways, especially when cooking for a special occasion.
That brings us to the traditional kickoff of the summer grilling season on Memorial Day. Why plan a menu of ordinary burgers or hot dogs when it takes very little extra effort to "go big"?
I like to make sure burgers are special by topping or stuffing them with boldly flavored cheeses and accompanying them with crispy bacon and grilled onion slices. I'll choose high-quality hot dogs, slit them lengthwise, stuff them with sharp cheddar cheese, and then wrap them round and round with bacon that crisps up on the grill. My steaks, chicken, chops, ribs and other barbecue staples gain extra distinction from bold marinades and generous arrays of fresh vegetables that surround them on the grill.
But what about seafood, you might wonder? How can fish, which grills so quickly, offer much room for creativity? That speed never stops me. I like to skewer jumbo shrimp on branches of fresh rosemary, for example. I grilled whole sides of marinated salmon fillet and accompany them with delicious vegetable salads and garlicky, Greek-style yogurt sauces. And I top halves of hot-off-the-grill lobster with spicy butters that form an instant sauce right in the shell.
Whole medium-sized fish just large enough to serve four to six people offer some of the best opportunities for creativity. Choose a fresh variety that's the right size for a home outdoor grill, like a 3-pound (1.5-kg) red snapper or sea bass, and it's easy to make a really big impression, as you'll see when you look over my recipe for Mediterranean-style grilled whole red snapper with fennel and Pernod butter sauce.
Keep sustainability in mind when shopping. Lots of fish sold as "red snapper" in markets today are not true red snapper, and some may not come from sustainable fishing practices. Always buy from a reputable fishmonger and look for red snapper caught in U.S. Gulf of Mexico waters, which is considered a good choice. A good alternative is branzino, also known as Mediterranean sea bass.
Let me offer one final word. I know that the idea of grilling a whole fish may seem daunting. But do it once, and you'll be surprised by how easy it really is to "go big" when cook seafood in your own backyard!
MEDITERRANEAN-STYLE GRILLED WHOLE RED SNAPPER WITH FENNEL AND PERNOD BUTTER SAUCE
Serves 4 to 6