Anatomy of a Classic

Gills on the Backyard Grill

A whole-fish recipe from Florida that’s perfect for home cooks

photo: Johnny autry | Food Styling by Charlotte Autry


The surprises came fast when Jeffrey Jew left Washington, D.C., and started cooking on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Jew, once a contestant on Top Chef, had gotten used to a steady supply of fruits and vegetables from Amish farmers in Pennsylvania. It was a different game in Florida, where he moved when his partner, Jim Steiner, took a community banking job nine years ago. 

“It’s so tough,” Jew says. “You’ve got only four or five months when you get good produce, then it gets too hot.”

He learned to adapt, sourcing locally as much as possible and immersing himself in the rhythms and limitations of Florida’s seasonal fisheries. “There are plenty of months when you can’t even find grouper or mahi-mahi,” he says. Fortunately, he discovered purveyors such as Sammy’s Seafood in St. Petersburg, which focuses on fish caught in environmentally sensitive ways. That’s how he fell in love with hogfish, a mild-tasting denizen of the waters around southern and central Florida. “It’s a unique fish that has a real flavor to it and is very tender,” he says.

Sometimes called hog snapper, though it’s actually a member of the wrasse family, hogfish is perfect for summer grilling. Jew likes to grill the fish whole, using a variation of a recipe popular in Canton, China, where cooks douse steamed fish with ginger and cilantro swimming in soy sauce. Since finding a whole hogfish can be a challenge, he suggests substituting a two-to-three-pound red snapper, sea bass, or striped bass. 

photo: Johnny Autry

Jew’s Chinese grandfather, a good cook who was born near Hong Kong, inspired the dish. The other side of his family has Norwegian roots. Jew is weaving together both sides of his ancestry at his new St. Petersburg restaurant, Lingr. The breakfast menu includes dim sum–style dumplings and Norwegian cardamom buns. Seafood will star in the evenings.

This simple recipe mixes global technique with an American backyard sensibility. Jew scores the fish and stuffs it with lemon, cilantro, and scallions, and whisks together an Asian vinaigrette that gets poured over just before serving. To keep the fish from sticking, clean the grill’s grates well and oil them, and let the fish come to room temperature before placing it on the hot grill. Leave it undisturbed until you turn it, then flip the spatula upside down and apply pressure to the grate as you gently move it under the fish, using tongs to help turn. 

photo: Johnny autry | Food Styling by Charlotte Autry

It’s surprisingly easy for a recipe that delivers big flavors and a splashy presentation. Best of all, it makes a great summer supper when the last thing a cook wants to do is spend time in a warm kitchen. “It just gets so hot down here,” Jew says, “so you want something that doesn’t take long to cook and that doesn’t require an oven.”  



Ingredients

  • Grilled Whole Fish with Asian Vinaigrette (Yield: 2–4 servings)

    • 1 (2½-to-3-lb.) whole hogfish, American red snapper, sea bass, or striped bass (scaled, gills removed, and cleaned)

    • Kosher salt

    • 1 lemon, sliced thinly

    • ½ bunch cilantro, stemmed and roughly chopped

    • ½ bunch scallions, cut into 1-inch pieces

    • Butcher’s twine, soaked in broth or water

    • Grape-seed oil

    • Black pepper

  • For the vinaigrette:

    • 6 tbsp. vegetable oil

    • 1 tbsp. toasted sesame oil

    • 2 tbsp. sweetened black vinegar

    • 1 tbsp. soy sauce

    • 1 tbsp. hoisin sauce

    • ½ bunch scallions, minced (about 1/3 cup)

    • 4 tbsp. ginger, minced

    • 2 tbsp. garlic, minced

    • ½ bunch cilantro, finely chopped (about 1/3 cup)


Preparation

  1. For the fish: Pat the fish dry, inside and out, and then score it on both sides. The cuts should be about ¼ inch deep and about 1 inch apart.

  2. Season the fish with salt inside the cavity and on both sides of the skin, then stuff with lemon, cilantro, and scallions. (It’s easiest to line the inside of the cavity with lemon slices, then add cilantro and then scallions. Then tuck in any remaining lemon slices.)

  3. Tie the fish in 2 or 3 places with butcher’s twine to secure the stuffing. Place the fish on a large plate or sheet pan and brush both sides heavily with grape-seed oil. Let the fish rest for about 30 minutes at room temperature.

  4. Brush the grates of a grill well, and oil them with a paper towel soaked in grape-seed or vegetable oil. Heat grill to about 500°F. If you’re using a charcoal grill, it’s ready when you can hold your hand over the grate for only 2 or 3 seconds.

  5. Brush the fish again with any oil that has pooled on the bottom of the plate. Carefully put fish on the grill. If using a gas grill, turn heat to medium and close the lid. If using a charcoal grill, do not cover once you place the fish on the grill. Cook for about 7 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish.

  6. Using a metal spatula and tongs, carefully flip the fish and cook for another 7 to 10 minutes.

  7. Transfer to a serving platter, grind some black pepper over the fish, and then whisk the vinaigrette one more time and pour it over the hot fish.

  8. For the vinaigrette: Whisk the oils together in a bowl. Add vinegar, soy sauce, and hoisin sauce, whisking well after each to emulsify. Whisk in scallions, ginger, garlic, and cilantro.

Meet the Chef: Jeffrey Jew

Hometown: Washington, D.C., where both his parents were stationed at the Pentagon.

What he learned from being an army brat: “My parents were strict, so you learn a lot of discipline, for sure.”

What he would grab from the kitchen if the house was on fire: A fish knife his Norwegian grandfather gave him when he was a child.