IIf I write about cooking fish, I almost always get a comment about how it smells. If I suggest moving the cooking outside to the grill, I hear friends tell sad stories of losing fillets to hot coals or ending up with overcooked and dried out food.
Enter the bacon-wrapped grilled trout of Elizabeth Karmel, grilling expert and cookbook author.
The beauty of this whole fish cooking technique is its simplicity. Cleaned fish with head, tail and tail are rubbed with a little olive oil, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper and stuffed with sprigs of fresh herbs. Then they are wrapped in thin, center-cut bacon strips (this is important, so more on that later), placed on a grill over indirect heat (see notes below for details), covered and broiled until bacon is crisp, about 15 to 20 minutes. No flipping required.
The resulting fish is moist with a delicious smoky flavor. We’ve done it several times at my house now. Last time we ate two of the hot fish off the grill. Then we deboned the rest and ate the cold smoked fish the following evening on a makeshift board with bacon, roughly chopped, alongside crackers, hummus, grape tomatoes and olives. It was delicious that way too.
I agree with Karmel, who said, “It’s crazy simple…the taste is high and complex, but it’s so easy to execute. It’s almost not like cooking. It’s like a craft project, and it looks great on the plate too.
Karmel has some advice. First, she warns that now is not the time for that thick artisan bacon. “I buy a center cut,” she said. Thinner bacon should sit for about 20 minutes until it loses its cold. This way it will easily wrap around the fish and won’t require messy toothpicks to hold it in place. The center cut is important because it is leaner. Bacon that is too greasy will shrink during cooking, leaving your fish bare in spots.
Karmel introduced me to the wrapping technique late last summer when I talked to him about tips for grilling fish. She’s a big proponent of putting things between the tricky critters and the grill. She recommends the bacon method to novice or anxious fish grillers.
“Everything I do is based on problem solving,” she said. “One of the biggest problems people have when grilling fish is that it sticks. If you use the fish basket, it sticks to the fish basket. So obviously a barrier between the grill and the fish will eliminate this blockage.
She can slip a salmon fillet over layers of herringbone lemon slices or over a soaking wet cedar plank. Unlike foil or other barriers, bacon, citrus and cedar also add flavor, she said. (If you put your fish directly on the grill, Karmel insists you oil the fish, not the grill. Don’t argue!)
For flavor, she likes trout stuffed with fresh tarragon, but encourages people to use herbs they like, like cilantro, or maybe try sliced garlic and/or thin lemon wedges. .
If you can’t find trout, she recommends snapper or sea bass, and adds that keeping the head and tail on gives more flavor and helps keep the fish together while cooking.
“Any whole small fish would work with this method,” she said. “The bacon will take 15-20 minutes to cook, so anywhere between 340g and 680g should be fine. With the skin, whole herbs, and bacon, it’s very hard to overcook it because there’s so much moisture.
Karmel urges grillers to wait until the bacon is crispy before removing the fish.
If you’re using a charcoal grill, it may take a little longer for the bacon to get there, but it will, she said.
We also tested the technique in a very hot oven and found that in a conventional oven the fish got too fatty before the bacon got crispy. The technique worked best in a convection oven, but you had to turn the fish halfway through cooking. Also, we found it best to quickly broil it right at the end to crisp the bacon. So, for me, it’s back to the grill.
If you’re cooking four small, whole fish like this, you probably have room to add vegetables to the grill as well. We found the Quick Cook Sliced Zucchini to be a great addition to this dish.
Grilled Bacon Wrapped Trout
If you’re worried about grilling whole fish, try this recipe. The fish is simply seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper and stuffed with fresh herbs. It is then wrapped in center-cut hickory-smoked bacon. Bacon serves two purposes: it adds flavor, but it also keeps fish from sticking to the grates. Keeping the head and tail on the fish as it grills gives more flavor and helps keep the fish intact during cooking time, Karmel says. Karmel likes to prepare this dish with trout, but other small white-fleshed fish, such as snapper or sea bass, are also suitable.
An advice: This is not the time for big artisanal bacon. Use thin, center-cut bacon, which has less fat and won’t shrink as much when cooked. Make sure the strips are at room temperature, so they wrap easily around the fish and stay in place.
Get ahead: Fish can be oiled, seasoned with pepper, stuffed with herbs, wrapped in bacon then tightly wrapped and refrigerated up to 1 day before cooking. Do not add salt if preparing in advance as this will dry out the fish.
Storage Notes: Refrigerate up to 2 days.
Total time: 30 minutes, plus 15 to 45 minutes for setting up the gas or charcoal grill, respectively
4 whole trout or bass (about 450g each), gutted and cleaned (see notes below)
Freshly ground black pepper
4 to 8 sprigs of fresh tarragon, plus more for serving
12 slices center-cut hickory-smoked bacon, room temperature, plus more as needed
2 courgettes (about 560g in total)
Dry the trout. Brush each trout inside and out with olive oil and season lightly with salt and pepper. Divide the tarragon into four equal parts and place them inside the fish.
Starting with a fish’s head, just behind the eye, begin wrapping the bacon around the fish’s circumference, slightly overlapping each layer to cover the fish’s skin. Each fish should take about 3 pieces of bacon to pack; more if your fish is bigger. Stop wrapping when you reach the last inch of the tail. Repeat with the remaining fish.
Wash, cut and cut the zucchini in half lengthwise. Slice each half again lengthwise into ½ cm thick pieces, then cut each piece in half, for easy handling. Place on a plate or platter, brush with oil and season lightly with salt and pepper.
Place two clean plates near the grill. Preheat the grill for indirect cooking over medium heat (see notes below).
Place the fish in the center of the cooking grid over indirect heat and arrange the zucchini slices around the fish. Cover and grill for 10 minutes. Transfer the zucchini to a dish and cover it to keep it warm (or, if you want a really soft zucchini, turn it over and continue cooking). If necessary, turn the fish over (see notes) and continue cooking for about 10 more minutes, or until the bacon is crispy, the fish flakes and is cooked through.
Transfer the fish to a dish, sprinkle with tarragon leaves and serve as a family with the zucchini.
If your fish weighs more than 450g, they may need to cook a little longer and you may need an extra slice or two of bacon.
It’s best to place the fish in the center of the grates, so it has even heat left and right, and the air can move evenly around the food, like a convection oven. If the size or configuration of your grill makes this impossible, you may find that the fish browns too much on one side after the first 10 minutes. If so, move and rotate the fish so that the cooler side is closer to the heat source (hotter coals). It is not necessary to turn the fish, but you can if you wish.
To prepare your gas grill for indirect heat grilling: cover and preheat with all burners on high. When you’re ready to cook, if you’re using a three-burner grill, turn off the middle burner and reduce the heat on the other burners to medium-high. Many two-burner grills are set up for indirect heat, so you can simply place the food in the center of the cooking grate. Heat one burner to medium-high and leave the other off. The grill temperature should be around 200C.
If using a charcoal grill, fill two fire starters with charcoal, light them, and when the coals are burnt, arrange them on either side of the pan, leaving an empty space in the middle. If your grill is too small to allow for an empty spot, push embers to one side, leaving the other side empty. Replace the cooking grate and place an oven or grill thermometer on it. Cover the grill. You are aiming for a temperature between 200-230C.
If using a convection oven: We prefer this grilled fish for the smoky flavor, but it can be done in an oven with a convection setting. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the bacon-wrapped fish on a wire rack over the baking sheet. Preheat the oven to 200°C on the convection setting. Roast the fish for 10 minutes, then flip and roast for another 10 minutes. If the bacon is not crispy enough, turn on the grill, raise the grill 10-15 cm from the grill and grill the fish for about 2 minutes on one or both sides, watching carefully that it does not burn.
Nutritional information per serving | Calories: 449; total fat: 21g; saturated fat: 4g; cholesterol: 147mg; sodium: 490mg; carbohydrates: 5g; dietary fiber: 2g; sugar: 0g; protein: 58g.
This analysis is an estimate based on the available ingredients and this preparation. It should not replace the advice of a dietitian or nutritionist.
© The Washington Post