There is no better means of cooking good fresh fish than grilling — that simplest and most difficult of cooking treatments which, more than any other, reminds us of Mediterranean journeys and holidays by the sea.
So many fish are suitable for grilling: sea bass, red and grey mullet, red snapper and monkfish are all firm - and white-fleshed candidates for the fire. However, barbecuing fish is a challenge for even accomplished cooks, since there is so little control over the heat. Whole fish are tricky anyway, because they come inconveniently in different sizes and different thicknesses. The distribution of bone varies from species to species, while some fish are more oily than others. Fish under 450 g/1 lb in weight are difficult not to overcook, while fish over 900 g/2 lb are hard to cook uniformly. If the centre at the bone is done, then the flesh closer to the skin is frequently dry.
The ideal weight for grilling is 450-675 g/1-1½ lb but, of course, fish as small as sardines or anchovies can be cooked successfully this way, while trained hands and the gift of tin foil can deliver fine results even with something as large as a whole salmon. Very small fish benefit from being wrapped in fresh vine or fig leaves before grilling, to help them stay moist. Cooking in our ideal weight range, a handy piece of kit is one of those fish-shaped metal baskets with a handle, which makes turning easy and avoids damaging the fish by eliminating direct contact with the grill slats.
You will need 450 g/1 lb of whole fish for each person. Leave fish larger than 900 g/2 lb to the expert and take heart from the fact that the cooking time is the same whether the fish weighs one or two pounds. Scale the fish by holding it by the tail and scraping towards the head with a sharp knife. Snip off the fins and gills with kitchen scissors and, if preparing sea bass, be careful not to get any of the sharp dorsal spikes under your fingernails or skin - they are poisonous and the wound will be very painful. If the body cavity of the fish has any blood in it, rub with salt then rinse under cold running water. Make two incisions deep into the flesh on each side of the body of the fish, cutting down to the bone. This will help it cook evenly. Sprinkle the outside of the fish liberally with sea salt. Do not brush the skin with oil.
An overhead grill is really a very good substitute for a barbecue and is often better. Place your seasoned fish under the grill or over the fire, about 15 cm/6 in from the heat source, for about 5 minutes. Leave it alone — push it around too soon and you will only damage the skin. Wait until it starts to change colour, while the head and tail lift slightly. If using a grilling frame, turning is easy. Otherwise, carefully slide a spatula or large fork under the fish, working from the tail and pushing along the length of the fish before lifting and turning. If you try to turn it by lifting in the middle the fish may break. Cook the other side for 4 minutes. Remove and check that it is done by pushing a knife tip down and gently lifting the flesh away from the rib bones or spine.
It is fish cooked like this which is winning people back to its culinary potential.