It all started in the olive oil isle of Whole Foods. They were giving out a taste of some olive oil and had a dish of zaatar spice sitting next to it. I was familiar with this blend of wild thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds from Ana Sortun's restaurants. It's surprisingly tangy and I find it very pleasant and even addictive although I don't normally like working with dry herbs. After tasting a piece of bread dunked in oil and zaatar, I bought a box on a whim. I knew I was taking a risk of letting it languish in my spice drawer, but luckily such was not its fate. I put it on roast chicken, lamb, grilled fish, flat breads, and it never felt out of place even to a minimalist like me.
Yesterday, I was grilling mahi and since it tends to be a relatively dense lean fish, I prefer to soak it in a simple marinade of a little lemon juice, a lot of olive oil, salt and pepper (just like I do with swordfish). Since I was already marinading, I thought I'll throw in some garlic and dijon mustard too. It was looking like a basic mustard garlic vinaigrette until I threw in a spoonful of zaatar spice. All of a sudden I got transported to the Middle East and heard a bottle of pomegranate molasses calling my name. I realized that I could most likely skip lemon juice next time -- there should be plenty of acidity from pomegranate molasses and zaatar. I seasoned the mix generously with salt and pepper and let mahi soak for a couple of hours.
Then I grilled it using my usual fish grilling procedure with the only exception of not drying off the marinade. Often marinades can cause more harm than good, so I used to stay completely away from them. Of course it depends on what the fish is covered with. Water (or any other moisture, like lemon juice) and large amount of sugar are your enemies -- they glue the fish to the grill. I suggest not washing your fish (or any other proteins) and drying them thoroughly on paper towels before cooking. You also have to go be careful with sweet ingredients like pomegranate molasses. A little bit is great and helps the fish brown, but a lot of it results in sticking and burning.
Although wet and sweet ingredients can be dangerous on the grill, they are used in very small amounts here. Most of this marinade is oil. Isn't that a good thing? I find that oiling the fish doesn't help nearly as much with sticking as oiling the grill several times before grilling (just like seasoning a cast iron skillet). Of course, oil on the fish won't cause more sticking, but it can cause flare ups and give the fish a sooty taste. To avoid this problem, it's best to shake most of the marinade off the fish before grilling it. If the fish is fatty (like salmon), I would dry the marinade off even more thoroughly, but mahi is lean so I decided to leave it lightly coated.
The fish was now happily grilled and smelling mighty good, and I was salivating looking at all this yummy marinade left over in the bowl. Using leftover marinade is a temptation I am usually good at avoiding, but this time I couldn't resist and basted the fish with just a little more of this mixture after flipping. I figured it will stay on top of the fish and won't touch the grill. Since the fish still needed at least 3 minutes of cooking, the marinade would easily heat up to 160F making it safe to eat.
Oh, what a yummy fish it was!
I served it on top of arugula salad with oranges, red onions, black beans, wheat berries, and dill. It was a perfect dinner after a morning trip to Clear Flour where we got a little carried away with croissants.
Grilled Mahi with Pomegranate Molasses and Zaatar
Fish substitutions: swordfish, striped bass (with skin), grouper, halibut
Pomegranate molasses and zaatar are available at Middle Eastern grocery stores and at Whole Foods. You can also google for them and buy them on-line.
4 skinless mahi fillets (6-8oz each)
1 garlic clove
1/4 cup olive oil
1 Tbsp zaatar
2 tsp pomegranate molasses
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp Japanese style soy sauce (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Marinate the fish -- at least 1 hour before cooking or up to 24
- Mash the garlic to a smooth paste by either grating it on a microplane zester or mincing, lightly salting, and then rubbing with the flat side of the chef's knife. Alternate mincing and rubbing until it is a paste.
- In a medium bowl, Combine mashed garlic with olive oil, pomegranate molasses, zaatar, mustard, and soy sauce. Season generously with salt and pepper, mix, taste, and adjust salt.
- Dry the fish fillet on paper towel, add to the bowl with marinade, and turn to coat. Refrigerate until ready to use (at least 1 hour and up to 24).
Grill the fish
- Scrape the grill clean. Place a disposable aluminum pan upside down on the area where you'll be placing the fish (or use a piece of foil). Cover the grill and preheat on high heat for 10 minutes. Do not remove the upside down pan or foil until you are ready to place the fish on the grill.
- 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 4 times where the pan used to be.
- Remove the fish from the marinade with tongs shaking off excess marinade and place the fish on the grill (skin-side up if substituting a fillet with skin), diagonal to the grill grates. Cover the grill and cook for 3 minutes per inch of thickness or until the fish gets grill marks.
- 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 with a spatula, top each piece with 1 tsp marinade, and grill on the other side until cooked through, about 3 minutes per inch of thickness.
- Check for doneness by separating the flakes with a fork in the thickest part of the fish. Take the fish off the grill when the center (about 25% of the fillet) is still translucent and resists flaking (if testing a very dense fish like swordfish, cut into it with a knife). To remove the fish from the grill, dislodge it with a fork like you did when turning it. Then lift one side of fillet, slip a spatula underneath, and lift the fish off the grill. Let rest 5 minutes and serve.