Philip DiFebo, Jr., paints a mouth-watering word picture: A large slab of fresh tuna, skinned and with a skewer through it, over hot coals. The temperature on the meat thermometer creeps to just over 125 degrees—rare. “Then you take it to the table,” DiFebo says, “and slice it with an electric knife in front of the guests like filet mignon.”
Another DiFebo tableau of temptation: A filet of rockfish, skin still on to keep the delicate meat intact, wrapped loosely in foil. Also inside—olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper, thin tomato slices, chopped red onion. “This way it gets steamed in its juices, but you still have the grilled flavor.”
You may better recognize DiFebo by the diminutive his parents gave the family’s fish market and restaurant 34 years ago—Feby’s, as in Feby’s Fishery, located on Lancaster Pike near the outskirts of Wilmington. Much of what DiFebo has learned over the years about grilling fish—his favorite summertime method of preparation—can be wrapped up in two rules: Each fish being grilled speaks to a different manner of preparation, and practically any fish or shellfish can be grilled. Also, “Keep it as simple as possible.”
Another area fishofile, Kate Applebaum, is chef of Harry’s Seafood Grill, where she feeds the masses that daily stream in and out of what, in a few short years, has become a seafood mecca along Wilmington’s riverfront.
Applebaum practically has fish coming out of her gills. “I started eating raw oysters at the age of 6,” she says during an afternoon break at the restaurant. Working in restaurants in New Orleans for seven years honed her love of seafood.
“Down South,” Applebaum says, “they are very pure and want to use wood for grilling,” usually over a base of charcoal. “I think of just charcoal, and I think of CO2.” She shudders. Propane and electric grills are fine, but they don’t give that wood-grilled taste. “Lighter woods, like apple or cherry, give lighter flavors,” she says. “An escobar could handle hickory, but you wouldn’t use it for scallops.”
When it comes to pre-treatment of the fish with marinades or rubs before it hits the grill,
Applebaum says to use oils and herbs, but not anything that’s acidic. “Acids can compromise the texture of fish by cooking them, and it can toughen up lobster.
“With fatty fish such as salmon and swordfish, grilling can caramelize those fats and oils to give almost a brulee flavor,” she notes. “Putting oil on a fish serves the same purpose when you’re grilling as oil in the pan does when you’re searing.”
Wraps? “You can use a banana leaf or corn husk,” she says, “but I tend not to use wraps unless you’re going to eat them, like wrapping with bacon or prosciutto.” Applebaum says to keep sauces light. “In the summer, I would more likely use a vegetable salsa than cream sauces,” she says, “or I will just use a simple vinaigrette.”
If you’re also grilling vegetables to serve with your seafood, put them on a cooler part of the grill so they can cook slowly, she advises. But when it comes to cooking the fish itself, she goes with the S&S strategy—”sear and seal.”
“The hotter the grill, the less tendency for the fish to stick or for you to lose parts of it,” Applebaum says.
Which leads us to James Abraham, manager of Hill’s Quality Seafood Market in Exton, who enjoys grilling with a cast-iron skillet.
“I like to use a ‘steaky’ fish like tuna, swordfish, blue marlin, or opah, cut into filets 1½ to 2 inches thick,” he says. He seasons the fish with oil and salt and pepper while the skillet heats up for about 15 minutes on an extremely hot grill.
“I coat the fish with a blackening season on both sides, add a dollop of butter to the skillet, and throw the fish in,” he says. “It catches fire immediately.” He warns that this method should never be used indoors. “I leave it for about 3 minutes on each side to crust, but it’s moist inside.”
The fishmongers and the chefs all agree that shellfish—lobster, clams, shrimp, oysters—are also all great for the grill.
Crisp, but fruity white wines are best to drink with more delicate white fish and shellfish—sauvignon blanc, Chablis, Muscadet, Loire Valley chenin blanc all work well. A light pinot noir, even slightly chilled, goes great with darker fish, especially salmon and tuna.
Are there any downsides of grilling?
“Well,” Applebaum says, “you still have to deal with the bones.”
* You can get Nueske’s bacon at www.nueskes.com. If you can’t find it, use a good smoked bacon.
This dish can also be done with a variety of fishes and meats.