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Fish On The Flames


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.”

Grilled Oysters with Barbecue Sauce

Hill’s Quality Seafood (Serves 4)

  • 36-40 large oysters in their shells barbecue sauce in a squirt bottle
  • 1/8 cup chopped chives
  • sour cream
  • 4 slices bacon
  • Cook bacon, drain, cool, and crumble. Set aside. Place oysters on a hot grill. When the shells open, quickly squirt a small amount of barbecue sauce into each shell. Continue to grill for another 8 minutes. Remove from heat and divide among four plates. Top each with sour cream, then chives and crumbled bacon. Garnish and serve immediately.
Rockfish with Salsa

Adapted from Feby’s Fishery (Serves 4)

  • 4 large rockfish filets
  • olive oil
  • 1 cup salsa made by roughly chopping equal portions of red onion and firm tomatoes, seasoned with lemon, salt, and cracked pepper
  • While the grill is heating, make the salsa and set aside. Liberally oil four filets and place each on a separate sheet of foil for grilling. Spread ¼ cup of salsa across each filet. Wrap the foil around the fish securely enough so that it will steam and juices won’t escape, but lightly enough so that you can check the cooking progress. Grill until filet turns opaque and is firm, about 7 to 10 minutes.
  • Remove from foil and serve.
Rosemary-skewered shrimp with crab & corn pudding and applewood bacon-tomato relish

Harry’s Seafood Grill (Serves 6)

  • 30 large shrimp, peeled & deveined
  • 12 sprigs rosemary
  • salt & pepper
  • 30 wooden skewers
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1-1½ cups olive oil
  • 1 lemon, cut in half
Crab & Corn Pudding courtesy of Larry Forgione, An American Place
  • 3 cups corn, fresh or frozen
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1 lb. crabmeat
  • 2 Tbs. flour
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. Old Bay seasoning
  • Dash of Tabasco
Applewood bacon tomato relish
  • 1 lb. Nueske’s* apple wood bacon, small dice
  • 3 plum tomatoes, seeded & small dice
  • 1/2 red onion, small dice
  • 1/8 cup sherry vinegar
  • 1/4 cup chives
  • 1 Tb. chopped rosemary, use leftover leaves from skewers
    salt & pepper to taste
  • MARINADE. Combine garlic, olive oil and lemon (don’t squeeze lemon). Clean shrimp and marinate for about 1 hour. Clean and soak wooden skewers in water (this will keep them from burning up). Skewer and season shrimp with salt and pepper and set aside.


  • PUDDING. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter six 6-oz. custard or soufflé dishes. Combine the corn, eggs, egg yolks, cream, and half the crab in a food processor or blender and puree. Add flour, salt, sugar, and Old Bay and blend for a few seconds more. Scrape into a bowl and stir in remaining crab, parsley, and Tabasco. Fill prepared dishes and place in a baking pan, adding enough hot water in the pan to come halfway up sides of dishes; cover with foil. Bake for 30-40 minutes, remove foil and bake 5 minutes more to set. Remove from pan and cool slightly. To serve, run a knife around outside and invert onto plate.


  • RELISH. Heat a large sauté pan over medium high heat and render bacon until slightly crispy. Pour off fat and reserve. Add onions and cook until tender, then take off the heat. In a bowl, combine the tomato, vinegar, rosemary, and chives. Stir in bacon and onion mix, and the strained bacon fat. Season with salt and pepper and keep warm on cool part of grill.


  • Grill shrimp with tops of skewers over cooler parts of grill, so they don’t catch fire. They should take about 3-4 min. per side.


  • To plate, place pudding in center of plate and arrange skewers leaning against it. Spoon relish around and serve. Leftover relish is great for a burger topping.

* 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.

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