Maybe I am getting a little ahead of myself with spring fever, but this weekend temperatures pushed 70 degrees. Our plan for the weekend seemed to reveal itself as both obvious and necessary no matter what weather might be coming our way: dusting off the grill for the season.
There are few things easier than grilling a whole fish, so maybe this is why I eagerly snagged the last whole red snapper at the grocery store as soon as I laid eyes on it. I picked up a few chiles and some tomatillos, but everything else I had at home. And while I have to admit that I usually make green mole on the fly and with whatever combination of mole-esque ingredients I have on hand (some kind of green chile and pumpkin seeds being the only requirements), this time, just for you, I’m writing it down. The only tip you need to know is you want a very dry fish to rub oil on and a very hot grill. After that, the fish and the grill take care of the rest.
As I set out to measure ingredients as I cooked, it occurred to me just how many different paths there are to arrive at a green mole. I recently purchased a small grill from the Santa Fe School of Cooking that sits directly on top of your stove burner. It allows me to grill chiles all year long, which results in the scent of fire-roasted green chile wafting throughout the house on a regular basis. Because the fish was going to be grilled, I thought it would be fun to begin with fire-roasted chiles to bring a bit of smokiness along with the mole, too. This is where I began, then followed my taste buds the rest of the way.
I used coriander because it’s one of my favorite spices, and especially lovely with fish, but you could also use cumin. I used poblano and jalapeños, but serrano, Hatch or Anaheim chiles would also work well. The biggest liberties I took this time around were a bit of fresh basil and a pinch of dried lavender. The basil added subtle notes of anise and mint, while the lavender added a barely there hint of floral and wood.
When you cook and serve a whole fish, there is a built-in experience that extends beyond eating. There is fish to pick at and enjoy. There are bones to remove and eat around. There is a head that contains some of the most flavorful bits of meat in the entire fish. Every once in a while, you might find a scale, which you will want to avoid. The point is, there is a slowing down that occurs. Usually people will start eating with a fork and soon switch to eating with their hands, which is much more effective for discerning which parts are good for eating and which are for the bone pile.
At the end of the meal, you’ll most likely have some hidden fish. This is a perfect opportunity to carefully go back through and pick any meat between the bones or in the fish head. I like to combine any leftover kale, mole, olives and fish meat with some chicken or vegetable broth, which makes a lovely stew for the next day. This isn’t a stew just for lunch or dinner: It makes a gorgeous breakfast with a fried or poached egg on top.
Whole Grilled Fish with Green Mole, Kale and Olives
Makes: 4 Servings;
total time: 1 hour
For the green mole:
1 fire roasted poblano, peeled and seeded
1 fire roasted jalapeño, peeled and seeded
2-4 garlic cloves, peeled
½ cup toasted pumpkin seeds
1 cup cilantro leaves and stems
¼ cup basil leaves and stems
3-4 tomatillos, husk removed and quartered
1 heaping teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground culinary lavender
1 cup water
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
For the fish:
1 bunch of lacinato kale, torn into pieces
½ cup Castelvetrano olives, pitted and halved
2 pounds whole fish, gutted and scaled (red snapper, rainbow trout, Arctic char or sea bass)
Extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing
Salt and pepper, to taste
Preparation: Preheat the grill to 450 degrees or medium-high heat if you’re unable to set it to a specific temperature. Pull the fish from the refrigerator, dry it thoroughly with paper towels and let it sit at room temperature for 20 minutes before cooking. By letting the fish warm up, it will prevent the fish from steaming and enable the skin to get nice and crispy once it’s on the grill. While you’re waiting, let’s make the mole.
Place the poblano, jalapeño, garlic, pumpkin seeds, cilantro, basil, tomatillos, coriander and water in a high-speed blender and blend until almost smooth, around 20 seconds. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat and add the smooth purée. It will sizzle and splatter, so be ready to cover it with a lid, stirring occasionally and cooking the mole for around 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Turn the heat down to low and transfer around 1 tablespoon of mole to the inside cavity of the fish. Add the kale and olives to the remaining mole in the pot and cover, letting this very slowly simmer while the fish is cooking.
Now, we will prepare the fish for the grill. With a very sharp knife, score each side of the fish by making three cuts at an angle through the skin and meat. This will help the fish cook quickly and evenly. Generously rub extra-virgin olive oil on both sides and season with salt and pepper. Place the fish directly on the hot grill and cover. The cooking time will depend on the size of fish you are cooking, but for a 2-pound fish, it will be around 10 minutes on each side. You’ll know the fish is done when it reads 140-145 degrees on a thermometer or when the fish will easily flake with a fork and no longer looks translucent.
To serve: Spoon the kale, olive and mole mixture into the bottom of a serving dish. Gently place the fish on top and serve immediately, family-style.