Thrill of the Grill

For fish, fire means flavor.

The best fish I have ever eaten was one I caught myself-not only because of the ego-pumping I got from landing it, but because it was the only fish I caught that day-a big, fierce, rampaging bluefish I pulled from the waters of Long Island Sound in July. Despite its reputation for a strong, oily taste, that evening I decided to grill the fish-quickly gutted and well cleaned of its dark flesh. I served it simply with a little crushed tomato and garlic and oil on the side and a wedge of lemon, sipping a mildly grassy Sancerre with it. It was the best, meatiest, sweetest fish I'd ever eaten, and if it proved anything, it was that if fish smells like fish, it ain't fresh.

Freshness has got to be the guiding principle to all fish cookery, and nowhere is it better accomplished than after a day of catching your own. Obviously you won't find every species desirable for a deck party on any given day, but the principle is the same when you're shopping, and quality fresh fish is easier than ever to find at the fish market-not a given at a supermarket. (By the way, don't buy fish that is stacked on top of ice. A good fish seller will bury the fish in ice.)

You can certainly sauté or roast fish on board with the proper equipment, but many people seem intimidated by the idea of grilling fish, since its flesh is the most delicate of any and tends to overcook, even to decompose, on the grill. Nevertheless, the rewards of proper fish cookery are many, starting with the terrific taste a grill imparts to the flesh of the fish.

Be especially gentle with fillets of flatfish like flounder and sole. The best method is to grill fillets-or any fish for that matter-in a well-oiled wire fish basket that can be easily turned at precisely the right moment. You could also place fillets over a perforated sheet of lightly oiled heavy-duty aluminum foil. And if you want a novel approach to grilling fish, here's a pretty neat trick: Grill the fillets on thin lemon slices. The slices protect the fillets from the intensity of the fire and are so thin they cook without needing a turn. And the tart, slightly charred yet still succulent lemon slices partner very well with the fish and make a dramatic plate garnish. If you wish, use thin slices of red or yellow onion instead of lemons.

Grilled Mahi-Mahi with Mint and Roasted Tomato Dressing: 4 skinless mahi-mahi steaks, about 6 ounces each 1/2 cup olive oil 1/4 cup fresh mint or basil leaves, finely chopped 2 cloves garlic, minced Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 1 pint (about 16) cherry tomatoes, stems removed Extra oil for brushing tomatoes 2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar

In a shallow dish, combine half the oil, half the mint or basil leaves and the garlic.

Place the fish in the marinade, turning to coat well on all sides. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Prepare a medium-hot fire in a charcoal or gas grill. (If using wooden skewers, soak them for 30 minutes in water to prevent them from burning on the grill.)

Meanwhile, thread the cherry tomatoes on two long skewers. Brush the tomatoes lightly with the extra oil.

Place the skewered tomatoes on a lightly oiled grill rack, 5 to 6 inches from the heat. Grill tomatoes, turning when necessary, until they are lightly charred and begin to soften.

Slide the tomatoes from skewers into a blender jar. Add the remaining olive oil, mint or basil leaves and balsamic vinegar; puree smooth. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper, if desired. Cover and set aside.

Oil the rack again and place the fish 5 to 6 inches from the coals. Grill about 8 minutes, or until nicely browned on both sides, turning once. Test for doneness by inserting a thin-bladed knife into the thickest part of the fillets. Mahi-mahi turns white when cooked.

Remove the fish to a serving platter. Pour roasted tomato sauce over fish and serve. Serves four.

Mixed Grilled Kebobs: 3/4 lb. firm fish, such as halibut, shark, swordfish, monkfish, salmon or tuna, cut into 1 to 11/4 inch cubes 3/4 lb. shellfish, such as peeled, deveined extra-large shrimp, whole sea scallops or lobster tail cut into large chunks 1 large red pepper, seeded and cut into 2-inch pieces 1 medium red onion, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces 8 fresh herb sprigs, such as thyme, rosemary, oregano, or dill

Lemon-Butter Basting Sauce: 4 Tbs. unsalted butter Juice of one lemon Salt and pepper, to taste

Prepare a medium-hot fire in a charcoal or gas grill. (If using wooden skewers, soak them for at least 30 minutes before using to prevent them from burning on the grill.)

Arrange seafood, red pepper and red onion on 8 metal or wooden skewers.

In a small pot, melt butter over low heat until just starting to foam. Add lemon juice and stir to incorporate. Add salt and pepper. Baste skewered fish and vegetables with sauce.

Just before grilling the kebobs, place herb sprigs directly on well-oiled grill rack set 4 to 6 inches from heat. Place kebobs on the herbs, one to a sprig. Grill, basting and turning every 2 to 3 minutes (but not during last three minutes of cooking), for a total of 7 to 9 minutes or until the fish is opaque when tested with a thin-bladed knife and shellfish is firm throughout, but still moist.

Remove from grill onto a large serving platter and drizzle with remaining lemon-butter sauce. If desired, serve over steaming white rice. Serves four.