I grew up in a big Catholic family, and when I was a kid, fish on Friday's was obligatory. My mother was an okay cook, but she didn’t have a clue about preparing seafood.
Now, if your whole experience with seafood consists of oily, overcooked fish sticks and sandpaper-dry tuna casseroles, you’re probably not going to be real gung-ho about preparing fish on your own. But sometimes you end up learning things through “trial by fire,” as they say.
In the 1970s I moved to Chicago as a young, ambitious salesman for Weber. To get hardware stores to carry Weber grills, we sales guys would invite the owners to a humdinger of a grilling demonstration/cocktail party after trade shows.
One year, I remember, we were at the Twin Cities trade show. We had reserved “The Top of the MAC” (the rooftop dining room of the Minneapolis Athletic Club) for the party. It promised to be quite a draw because, from the lofty eighth story, revelers would be able to enjoy a sparkling cityscape while sipping cocktails and eating grilled delicacies, all at Weber’s expense.
On the last day of the trade show, my boss, Art, took off to “check out the competition” (or as we say in plain English, “play golf.”) Just after he left, the president of a major hardware distributorship came by our booth. In the exchange of small talk, he boasted of the 16-pound trout he’d just caught on Lake Superior.
Having once seen Art demonstrate how to grill lake trout, he asked if we would grill and serve the fish at our party that evening. Although I couldn’t recall having ever seen a lake trout up close and personal, I immediately volunteered (and hoped that Art would be back in time to grill it).
That afternoon as we prepared for the party, the president’s son dropped off the trophy trout (I smiled hugely to hide my nervousness.) Art was still checking out the competition and I had to get grilling. I unwrapped the fish. It had been cleaned, thank God, but it was clearly much too long to fit on any of our grills. Terror struck.
Fortunately, one of the chefs at the MAC had prepared lake trout before. He offered a recipe for stuffing the darn thing, but wisely withdrew from helping me possibly ruin it on my grill. I wished for the same wisdom sometime in the future.
With the clock ticking, I jumped into the deep end. I cut off the tail and the head, leaving the meaty center of the fish in one piece. I prepared two grills for indirect cooking and placed the head and tail on one, the stuffed center on the other. My plan was to reassemble the fish parts on a large platter and add garnishes to hide the wounds.
About an hour into grilling, I actually started to relax as the aroma from the stuffing made my mouth water.
But then, I discovered a new problem. The head and tail were cooking much faster than the center. They would be grilled to a crisp before the meatier center was done! I wrapped the head and tail in aluminum foil to keep them from burning, closed the grill’s top and bottom dampers, and crossed my fingers.
An hour later the chef came out to witness what he was sure would be a disaster. He found my colleagues chatting up the early arrivals, but I had ducked into the alley to avoid a very public embarrassment.
But the grilling gods were kind to me that day. The fish center had cooked faster than expected and the head and tail were cooked to the same degree. Once the chef and I performed the final touches of cosmetic surgery, covering the cuts with sautéed lemon slices and lots of parsley, the fish parts actually looked like they all came from the same species.
Just as we finished, Art arrived, placed the chef ’s toque on his own head, grabbed a spatula, and marched out for the presentation. I followed with the president’s trout beautifully displayed on the platter.
The president beamed with pride and thanked Art for cooking it to perfection. Raising his glass in a toast, Art proclaimed he couldn’t have done it without the help of his Weber grill. I bit my tongue, the chef winked knowingly at me, and the president announced that he had never tasted a better lake trout.
And that’s how I overcame my fear of grilling fish.