Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Grilled Striped Bass with Preserved Lemon Rub

Samantha, our 16 month old, loves eating with us; and we love eating with her. She clinks her sippy cup against our wine glasses, giggles, urgently points to the most unfamiliar food on the table making sure she doesn't miss something new and exciting, and happily munches on little pieces we cut up for her from our plates. She is a perfect dinner companion -- cheerful, social, willing to taste everything, and even wipe her mouth with a napkin (sometimes she wipes her hair too). But the path to this utopian family meal is strewn with thorns. When Sammy sees me going into the kitchen to cook, she knows that it must be meal time and her patience lasts about 3 minutes. After that, she is pointing at her high chair, and saying "Mommy, nyam-nyam" (that's yum-yum in Russian). If 2 minutes later, Mommy is still cooking, Sammy is not happy. When she wants to eat, she wants to eat NOW!

As you can imagine, our home meals have not been particularly innovative lately. The operative word here is "fast." If I can get a meal on the table before Samantha becomes histerical, that's an accomplishment. So this weekend, Jason and I decided to ditch one family meal in favor of a lunch date at home. We fed Sammy, put her for a nap, and I set out to make us lunch without having a 5 minute deadline. I had a beautiful fillet of striped bass from the New Deal Fish Market. I wanted to do something new with it. But what? It felt like I haven't had a new fish dish in over a year (either at home or in a restaurant). I didn't have time to read books, search the web, or go shopping. If we wanted to enjoy our lunch before Sammy woke up, I had to think fast. I opened the fridge and started looking through the shelves in desperation. That's when I noticed a jar of preserved lemons that I got at Formaggio's last week. That was a good start. I could make a paste out of these lemons with some garlic, tarragon, and parsley that would flavor the fish. Now, the cooking method... I tried to think of some method, I haven't used in a long time. Searing, roasting, and broiling were out -- those are my usual work horses. Steaming and poaching didn't do much for striped bass since they made the skin rubbery. Grilling? It was a bit chilly here in Boston, but the grill was calling me.

I cut a few diagonal slashes in the fish, rubbed it all over with the lemon paste, stuffing it into the slits, and grilled it. Then I topped the fish with the remaining lemon paste, and served it with lentils that I found sitting in the back of my fridge. Oh, what a lunch it was! It's amazing what one can do with a good nap.

What is a preserved lemon?
It's a lemon that is stuffed with salt and left to pickle for about a month. Once pickled, it can last in the fridge for 6-12 months. This ingredient is very common in Morocco, but it is so versatile that I put it into all sorts of Mediterranean-style dishes. Have you cooked with preserved lemons before? No? Try them -- it's a revelation. I used to make them myself, but now I just buy them at Formaggio's (some Whole Foods markets carry them too). None of these places display them, but if you ask in the cheese department, they'll be able to get you some. Ask them to cover the lemons with brine. They last longer this way. To use pickled lemons, I break off a quarter (they are partially quartered when you buy them), remove the lemon segments and discard (that's right, you discard the part of the citrus you would normally eat). I use the thick skin (the zest plus the white pith) that's left. Keep in mind that the preserved lemons are very salty, so you might want to skip the salt when using them.

Grilled Striped Bass with Preserved Lemon Rub

A note about herbs: I used parsley and tarragon because I had them on hand. This combination turned out particularly well, but you can also use cilantro, mint, or dill.

Fish substitutions: bluefish, salmon, red snapper, steelhead trout, white trout, mahi-mahi, swordfish, or any fish suitable for grilling. Dense fish (like mahi and sword) should be cooked without the skin, so skip the skin slashing step for those. The rest are best grilled with the skin. If you don't like the skin, you can take it off after cooking, but it's necessary to keep the fish together on the grill.

Serves 4

4 pieces stripped bass fillet with skin, 6 oz each
1 quarter of preserved lemon (zest and white pith only)
1 garlic clove, minced
1 Tbsp minced flat leaf parsley
1 Tbsp minced tarragon
1 Tbsp canola oil (plus more for oiling the grill)
1 Tbsp butter, cut into 4 slices
  1. Scrape the grill clean. Place a disposable aluminum pan upside down on the area where you'll be grilling the fish. Cover the grill and preheat on high heat for 10 minutes. Do not remove the upside down pan until you are ready to place the fish on the grill. This super heats the grill to ensure perfect grill marks and avoid sticking.
  2. Dry the brine off the lemon wedge with a paper towel. Slice the lemon wedge as thin as possible. Combine lemon slices with minced garlic and herbs and mince until the mixture turns into a paste. Alternatively, you can make the paste in a food processor, but it's such a small amount that most food processors won't work with it.
  3. Dry the fish very thoroughly with paper towels. Score the skin on a diagonal at 1/2 inch intervals. These cuts should be very shallow and barely penetrate the flesh of the fish.
  4. When the grill is ready, tub the fish all over (skin and flesh side) with 1 Tbsp canola oil and half of the lemon rub mixture, pushing a bit of the lemon rub into the slits in the skin.
  5. Remove the upside down pan from the grill. Dunk a wad of paper towel in canola oil. Hold it with tongs and wipe the grill with oil where the pan used to be.
  6. Place the fish on the grill skin-side up diagonal to the grill grates. Cover the grill and cook for 3-4 minutes per inch of thickness or until the fish gets grill marks.
  7. Slip the tins of a fork between the grill grates and gently push up on the fish. Do it in a couple of places until the grill lets go of the fish. Flip the fish and grill on the skin-side until cooked through, 3-4 minutes per inch of thickness. To check for doneness, separate the flakes in the thickest part of fillet with a fork and peek inside. The fish is done when a trace of translucency still remains in the center. It will continue to cook once it's off the grill.
  8. To remove the fish from the grill, dislodge it with a fork like you did when turning it. Then lift it off the grill with a spatula and place on a serving plate skin-side up (this prevents the skin from getting soggy). Slip a slice of butter under each piece of fish, and divide the remaining lemon rub among the fish pieces.


Kalyn Denny said...

Sounds like a wonderful meal. Fun hearing about dinnertime with your daughter too.

Jen said...

This looks so yummy. I just got preserved lemoms in Haymarket last week. It's a great use for them.

Unknown said...

In our experience, preserved lemons last in the fridge forever. For all intents and purposes. Anything that can survive in this salty / acidic environment should be allowed to vote.

Nathan Lewis said...


Anonymous said...

I had to laugh about your daughter, mine is a little older but pretty much the same...I also am getting really good at fast cooking and will adopt the nap thing for future refrence.

Island Girl said...

Can you suggest a different fish to use?

Helen said...

I sure can :) At the top of the recipe, there is a whole section for Fish substitutions.

Anonymous said...

WOW - what a great meal I have to say.

Our toddler was always a pretty decent eater until about 20 months, then if it wasn't stuffed into pasta somehow, he wouldn't eat it.

Thankfully even through this (still in that stage at 2years..) he eats fish fine!

FoodieMommy said...

I definitely understand the need to make food fast as I also have 2 boys under 3! The slow cooker has been a helpful way to prepare food after the kids go to bed and still have a great meal the next day. Wouldn't work for this delicious fish dish, but may help you out for others.

Michele at Foodiemommy.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

This looks delicious!
I just stumbled upon your blog today and I'm so glad I did.
Do you happen to know what CHERNE is? It's a fish I had in Portugal, but I can't figure out what it is so I can buy it here in U.S. If it would help, I do have a picture of it and can send it (or post it somewhere).

Helen said...

Hi Anna,

After doing a little googling, I found out that cherne is snowy grouper. There are lots of grouper varieties, so I am not sure if I've ever had snowy grouper. But whatever my fishmonger sells as "grouper" is a wonderful fish. If you can find grouper, try it and see if it's similar to what you had in Portugal.


Anonymous said...

Thanks! I will make it a point to go to the store today and see. When I had it in Portugal, it was grilled and tasted fantastic. Best fish I had (to date).