Grilled Whole Fish
Cooking small whole fish, as opposed to fillets, optimizes flavor and juiciness, because the skin and a thin layer of (healthy) fat insulate the meat -- and it couldn’t be easier. Mild, white-fleshed branzino is almost tailor-made for the technique: It has relatively few bones and they’re simple to remove, so the fish is very easy to serve and eat.
- 2 whole branzino (each 1 to 1 1/2 pounds), cleaned, heads and tails left intact
- 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 thin wooden skewers or 6 toothpicks, soaked in water 30 minutes
- Vegetable oil, for brushing
Dill & Lemon Filling
- 1 lemon, half thinly sliced, half cut into 2 wedges
- 3 sprigs dill, plus more for garnish (optional)
Basil, Lime & Chile Filling
- 1 lime, half thinly sliced, half cut into 2 wedges
- 3 sprigs fresh basil, plus more for garnish (optional)
- 3 Thai or serrano chiles, left intact but split down 1 side
Preheat grill for direct-heat grilling over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, drizzle cavity of each fish with 1 tablespoon olive oil, then season generously with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper.
Aromatics help keep whole fish moist while grilling. Stuff 1 fish cavity with lemon slices and dill and the other with lime slices, basil, and Thai chiles. If using just 1 filling, double amounts called for.
Fasten each opening with a wooden skewer or toothpicks that have been soaked in water so they don’t burn. This keeps the aromatics inside and also makes fish easier to handle on the grill.
Using a paring knife, make long, 1/4-inch-deep diagonal slashes at 2-inch intervals on both sides of fish so they cook evenly throughout. This also allows any seasonings on skin (see step 5) to penetrate.
Rub both sides of each fish with remaining olive oil and season with salt and pepper, working all into slashes as well as heads and tails -- both are edible, and the tail becomes delightfully crisp when grilled.
Brush hot grill with vegetable oil; immediately place fish on grill. Cook, undisturbed and uncovered, until undersides are charred and flesh along gills on undersides turns opaque, 5 to 7 minutes.
Turn fish with 2 large spatulas. If they stick, wait a few seconds until skin sears enough to release cleanly. Grill on other side until charred and fish are just cooked through and opaque, 5 to 7 minutes more.
Serve fish with lemon and lime wedges and more herbs. To serve, cut fillet free from top side of fish and remove with a spatula. Remove bones to free other fillet.