Turns out I enjoy brutish eating.
It's a rare sight, one I hope to make ordinary, but when in the presence of grilled whole fish, I'll pick it apart with my fingers until the skeleton is as bare as a scientific drawing.
That a whole fish offers more flavor than a plastic-wrapped filet is certain in my mind. Some of the juiciest, fattiest morsels are hidden between the petite ribs near the fish's hemal spine. I'll parse through it all, picking teeny bones from tiny bites and becoming an oily wreck in need of a napkin. It feels a little primal. When I'm done, there's nothing on the bone.
As one who's not prone to outdoor, fishing pole-accompanied excursions toward north Georgia's lakes and streams, which is in itself a shame, meetings between writer and grilled fresh fish dinner are too often held to once-a-year seaside vacations, when a hopeful boat trip might return with a small bluefish or, if we're lucky, a red snapper.
But a relationship made through social media ‑ a relationship shared, I believe, by a number of wild and fresh seafood enthusiasts in Athens ‑ I am able to benefit from one local fisherman's trips to the coast. A message hits my inbox when a cooler full of mullet, as a most recent example, is on its way from the Atlantic Ocean to our city. I reply and mullet comes quickly to my door, arriving cleaned and missing its head, which is not as I would have preferred, but whatever.
Then it's off to the grill. I believe that, just like a whole chicken roasting in an oven, a fish comes off the grill tasting spectacular with only olive oil, salt and pepper. From that base, it's easy to get inventive. The following is adapted from a basic grill fish recipe from Bon Appetit magazine. The recipe makes for a perfect taco filling, adding a spicy slaw or salsa. Skip adding cheese.
Thyme-Lime Grilled Mullet
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time (not including grill set-up): 10-15
3 1 to 1 ½ pound mullet, or any smallish fish, gutted, de-scaled and cleaned.
2 limes, zested then sliced into rounds
sprigs of thyme, about a half bunch of the fresh herb
5 garlic cloves, smashed
½ teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 Tbsp salt
1 Tbsp pepper
2 Tbsp olive oil
Prepare a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill, or heat a gas grill to medium-high. Before placing grill on top of coals, rub small amount of oil on grill
Cut three small slits spaced at least 1 ½ inch apart into fish from about an inch down from the dorsal side to an inch before the pelvic side. Flip fish and repeat. These help the fish cook thoroughly and quickly.
In a molcajete or small mixing bowl, mix together lime zest, chili powder, cumin, and salt and pepper. If using whole cumin or pepper, grind coarsely. Coat fish in seasoning inside and out.
Distribute thyme evenly between fish and stuff into cavity.
Add garlic into cavity.
Stuff limes into fish so that some rind is poking out from cavity but is not falling out.
Rub fish with olive oil.
Grill fish for 4-5 minutes. Resist urge to flip if skin does not loose itself easily from grill. Let it get crispy. Rub a small amount of olive on metal spatula before using it to turn fish.
Flip onto other side and grill for another 4-5 minutes.
Transfer to platter and serve.