RECIPE: George Hirsch’s Grilled Whole Fish: Psari sta Karvouna: Ψαρι στα Καρβουνα

Chef George Hirsch, Living It Up, Noyak, NY, ITKW

We had the pleasure of visiting with chef George Hirsch for our High Summer 2014 issue. He is a charming host in his kitchen and on TV, where he has his own show, George Hirsch Lifestyle, on public television. He made us a grilled branzino. Here’s the recipe and some of George’s words of wisdom on grilling. 

From Gather ’Round the Grill cookbook with chef George Hirsch

Freshness is the key, from hook to heat. I learned at a very young age (about four or five) from my father that a fire had to be built before we tossed our fishing lines in the water. Maybe it was his power of positive thinking that we’d score a good catch, but his method was to have a really hot fire at the ready, then catch, clean and grill immediately. Not sure where he learned this, maybe someone Greek.

The Mediterranean diet is largely based on Greek and Cretan cuisine. It’s no surprise since Greece is made up of many islands that fish is one of the most popular proteins. With such a moderate climate most of the year and very hot summers, grilling is very common. There are no fancy sauces or marinades required in Greek cuisine, it’s just a matter of letting the flavor of the fish come through. All that is needed is a couple of the same simple ingredients that will go well with any fish. Charcoal or wood-fired grills are more common, but a gas grill with a few wood chips gets the same results.

Greek Translations When Preparing Fish on the Grill
Psari: one fish
Psaria: more than one fish
Psaria sti Shara: fish on the grill
Psito Psari (Ψαρι στα Καρβουνα): grilled fish

The following is the traditional method of grilling fish in Greece. The most authentic Greek recipe for preparing any kind of fish is very simple: olive oil, fresh lemon juice, sea salt, Greek oregano (rigani) or thyme and fresh ground black pepper. Use thin lemon slices to place on top of the fish while grilling for added moisture and complementary flavoring.

To prepare the fish:
If using small to medium whole fish, scrape off scales and carefully make a slit into the underbelly (this can be done by your fishmonger) to remove intestines, leaving head intact. Rinse well and pat dry.

Preheat grill to high heat. Lightly season the fish with sea salt, inside and out, or both sides for fish steaks. Brush fish with olive oil and lemon juice and sprinkle with coarsely ground oregano or thyme and fresh ground black pepper.

Brush the grid or grill with olive oil to prevent sticking; grill the fish. Turn after 4 to 5 minutes, and continue cooking 4 to 5 minutes or until done. Fish is done when flesh is firm and just about ready to flake.

Non-grill option:
Not to worry if you are a little intimidated about cooking a whole fish directly on the grill.
There are a number of nonstick fish baskets on the market, or you can use my “fish on foil” method. Take a piece of foil slightly larger than your fish. Spray with a nonstick spray or lightly coat with olive oil. Place fish on foil and season as above. Wrap loosely and place fish on a very hot grill turn after 4 to 5 minutes and continue cooking 4 to 5 minutes or until fish is done. Fish is done when flesh is firm and just about ready to flake.

Important tips: Allow for carry-over cooking: this is the residual heat that will keep cooking the fish after removal from grill.

Cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the fish, in addition to outside temperature and the exact temperature of the grill.

Quick guide:
–  Fish gutted, scaled and cleaned.
–  Select small whole fish under 2 pounds. Large fish should be filleted or cut into steaks.
–  Score the sides of fish with 2 or 3 diagonal cuts.
–  Season well, inside and out.
–  Make a basting marinade for the fish: 3 parts olive oil to 1 part fresh lemon juice.
–  Brush both sides with the marinade.
–  Brush the grill or the fish rack with oil.
–  Occasionally brush fish with marinade to prevent it from drying out.
–  Exact grilling time depends on the thickness of the fish.
–  When the fish is cooked, serve with lemon and olive oil and drizzle over fish.

Tzatziki is an easy-to-prepare creamy summer side that can be used as a dip, spread or condiment for the grilled fish. Serve with warm pita, bread or vegetables.

George Hirsch’s Tzatziki Sauce
From George Hirsch’s Adventures in Grilling cookbook
Makes about 3½ cups

3 cups thick Greek yogurt, or regular plain yogurt strained very well
Juice of one lemon
3 to 6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 medium cucumbers; peeled seeded and sliced
1 tablespoon kosher salt for salting cucumbers
1 tablespoon fresh dill, finely chopped
½ teaspoon hot sauce
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil

Put sliced cukes in a colander, sprinkle on salt and let stand for 30 minutes to draw out water. Drain well and wipe dry.

In a food processor add cucumbers, garlic, lemon juice, dill and hot sauce. Mix until well blended, remove and add to yogurt. Add fresh ground black pepper to taste. Place in refrigerator for at least two hours before serving. Serve in small dishes; make a well and drizzle a small amount of olive oil in center.