Always trust Greeks bearing fish… That is my greatest piece of vacation advice. I had always dreamed of going to Greece. Such a bookish kid, I fell hard for the Greek myths we started reading in fifth grade. So hard, that I actually stole the old, frayed hardcover copy of Olivia Coolidge’s Greek Myths from my school, and have taken it with me through different childhood homes, dorm rooms, and first apartments. When, at 27, I finally got my chance to go, I threw Olivia Coolidge, along with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, some bathing suits, and my appetite (all suitably adventurous and geographically appropriate) into my suitcase, zipped it up, and started my own little odyssey through the Greek islands of Santorini, Paros, and Mykonos.
Now, an odyssey is supposed to be an adventure. And culinarily, it was. For one night. Because after I tasted the grilled sea bream at The Red Bicycle in Santorini, I ordered grilled sea bream every single night for the ten days I was there. I have to defend myself. I discovered other things at lunch and dinner, or as starters or desserts. I gorged myself on tomato fritters, which reminded me of a battered and fried Greek salad, on tzatziki, on eggplant drizzled with saffron yogurt and pomegranate seeds, on chunky cucumber and feta salads, on baklava and yogurt with honey and walnuts, on gigantes beans stewed in oregano-scented tomato sauce. I even was so adventurous as to try fresh-caught octopus thrown on a grill with ouzo, and sea urchins still wriggling their porcupine shells. But every night, no matter what restaurant in what town on what island, I ordered the grilled bream. You cannot sit on an island, in a restaurant painted white and maritime blue, as they all are, overlooking those vast expanses of blue sea, and not order the fish.
It was so simple. The first secret, I believe, to that perfect Greek fish was the fish itself—it was fresh, and unadulterated. I saw the fishing boats out in the ocean myself. Second, it was whole. Fish seared in its skin, on the bone, is so much sweeter, more moist, more honest and as-it-should-be, than anything filleted. It is worth the intimidating bones, head, and tail factors a million fold. Third, it was touched up. You would think that the fish would have been grilled plain, but it wasn’t. Its cavity was stuffed with bouquets of herbs, sometimes just thyme, sometimes a little oregano or rosemary, and lemon slices. It was drizzled in fresh olive oil, and sprinkled with coarse salt. In other words, it had a little help. The heat from the grill caused that lemon and those herbs to absolutely permeate every centimeter morsel of fish flesh, and it was simply delicious. I ate that thing head to tail every night, and I knew I had to figure out how to make it myself, because a habit like that is too hard to break.
To make Greek fish, follow my Greek fish tenets to the letter. One: find the freshest whole fish in your area. No use using sea bream if that’s not local; the secret to the fish is its freshness. I’ve used branzini, yellowtail snapper, even little trouts in a pinch. Two: leave it whole. Ask your fishmonger to take off or out any scales, gills, guts, or fins. The rest remains as is. Three: enhance. Drizzle the fish, inside and out, with extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle it with coarse salt. And stuff the cavity with fresh thyme and thin half-moons of lemon. Grill it on a hot, hot grill just until cooked through, drizzle it with more extra virgin olive oil and coarse salt, and eat it right away. Serve some homemade tzatziki and fresh bread to start. I swear, Santorini won’t feel any farther than your backyard. I’m pretty sure Poseidon would be proud.
Greek Grilled Whole Fish serves 4
So close to the original, I don’t think I could tell the difference. Serve with a simple rice pilaf, orzo salad, a traditional Greek salad, or an herb and greens salad tossed with olive oil and lemon juice.
INGREDIENTS4 3/4-pound whole sea bream, sea bass, branzini, yellowtail snapper, or other whole mild, white-fleshed fish (have your fishmonger remove any scales, gills, guts, and fins, leaving the head and tail intact)3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided 4 teaspoons very coarse sea salt (recommended: Maldon), (if using Kosher salt, halve the amount)6 very thin slices of lemon, cut in half into 12 half-moons1 ounce fresh thymeFreshly cracked black pepper (about 8 turns of the peppermill)2 whole lemons, quartered1 cup pit-in green and black olives, like Kalamata and Sicilian
1. Fire up your grill! A wood-burning grill is ideal for this recipe, but I also recommend a simple gas grill, preheated to medium-high.
2. Make sure each fish is trimmed, rinse it, and dry it thoroughly inside and out with paper towel. Season each fish with 2 tablespoons olive oil: pour roughly 2 teaspoons of oil inside the cavity, and rub it into the flesh. Then pour the remainder of the 2 tablespoons on the outside of the fish, and rub it into the skin, making sure every inch of the fish, from head to tail, is oiled (this prevents the fish from sticking to the grill). You’ll want to oil the fish on a wide platter, to catch any oil that will run off, which can still be used to marinate the fish. Repeat for the remaining 3 fish. You should have ¼ cup olive oil leftover for later.
3. Season the fish with salt. For each fish, you will use 1 teaspoon of Maldon salt, which is a flaky sea salt that creates a great crust on the outside of the fish. Sprinkle about a third of the teaspoon into the cavity of the fish, and use the remainder of the teaspoon to season the skin. Repeat with the remaining fish.
Divide the bunch of thyme into 4 little bouquets. Stuff the cavity of each fish with 3 thin half-moons of lemon, and one little thyme bouquet. Don’t be afraid to stuff it in there—it should pretty much disappear into the fish.
4. Season the outside of the fish with pepper, about 1 grind on the peppermill on each side of each fish. The fish should not be on a platter, stuffed and seasoned, with olive oil pooling on the platter beneath. That’s perfect! Place the lemon quarters on the platter as well.
5. Make sure the grill is nice and hot. Get the fish nicely coated on both sides in the olive oil on the platter. Place the fish on the hot grill, and don’t try to move them. Also place the lemon quarters, cut-side-down, on the grill. Cook the fish 7 to 8 minutes on each side, until the skin is nicely charred and releases easily from the grill with the help of a pair of tongs and a fish spatula. The flesh of the fish will be opaque white, and flaky. Remove the lemons whenever they are charred—it takes about 7 to 8 minutes.
6. Place the fish and charred lemons on a rustic serving platter, and pour the remaining ¼ cup of fresh extra virgin olive oil right on top of the fish. Scatter the olives around the platter, and top the fish with a few decorative sprigs of fresh thyme.
7. Serve them up.
Tzatziki (serves 4)
This makes the perfect starter to serve, and take the edge off, while the fish is on the grill.
INGREDIENTS1 cup shredded cucumber (from about 1 peeled cucumber)1/4 teaspoon Maldon sea salt, plus 1/2 teaspoon (halve the amounts if using Kosher salt)1 500-gram tub of Greek yogurt (recommended: Fage), full fat or 2%1 tablespoon, packed, sliced fresh mint1 large clove garlic, finely grated1/2 teaspoon lemon zest 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juiceFreshly ground black pepper (4 turns on the peppermill)Lots of rustic, crusty, fresh bread or warm pitas for dipping
1. Grate the peeled cucumber on a box grater and place it in a fine-mesh colander. Add ¼ teaspoon Maldon salt to the cucumber, and let it sit in the colander in the sink for 15 to 20 minutes, to remove the excess liquid from the cucumber.
2. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix together the remaining 1/2 teaspoon Maldon salt (or ¼ teaspoon Kosher salt), yogurt, mint, garlic, lemon zest and juice, and black pepper. Set aside so the flavors can combine while the cucumber drains.
3. Heat up your bread in a warm oven, and cut it into big, rustic wedges.
4. After about 15 minutes, use the back of a tablespoon to press the cucumber shreds up against the sides of the colander. The excess liquid will drain away. When the cucumber is fairly dry, add it to the yogurt mixture, and stir to combine. Scoop the tzatziki into a serving bowl, and place the serving bowl on a rustic wooden cutting board. Arrange the bread wedges all around, and dig in.