Fred Bollaci with Zach Erdem, Owner 75 Main.
75 Main’s Chef Mark Militello shares, “One of my favorite methods for grilling fish is to wrap the whole thing in fennel. It looks great and it’s a real flavor enhancer because as the fish
grills the fennel toasts and gets charred, adding an anise smokiness. The fennel also protects the fish — you never have to worry about the fish sticking on the grill — and it keeps the heat and the juices in. What you have is really a combination of grilling and steaming.
I cut deep slashes in the fish, which help the fennel flavor to penetrate, but for more seasoning I also fill them with a mild garlic paste. I cook a whole head of garlic, about a dozen meaty cloves, in water until it’s soft. Then I purée it. I think this works better than roasting. Sometimes roasted garlic can get bitter and even though the garlic isn’t as sharp it can still be overwhelming. This makes it more subtle. And you don’t have to light the oven.
Shallots, lemon and thyme are the other seasonings in my garlic paste. I beat in good olive oil, like making mayonnaise. I smear this mixture into the slashes and inside the fish and then put slices of lemon and shallot in the fish. Then I wrap it in the fennel branches. Some markets trim their fennel stems way down, so for this dish you may have to ask your produce guy to save you some that hasn’t been trimmed.
Once the fish is wrapped in the fennel I tie it in a few places and rub it all over with olive oil. It can stay like that, seasoned and ready to cook, for a few hours in your refrigerator before you grill it.
As for the fennel bulbs, I slice them, blanch them and put them in a buttered dish with a little cream and Parmesan cheese and bake a quick gratin to serve alongside.
It will probably take 25 minutes or so to grill the fish. Then you snip off the strings and present the fish to your guests, covered with charred fennel. It looks pretty exotic. Once you’ve removed the fennel it’s easy enough to fillet. Your guests might still get a bone or two, but hey, they’re eating a whole fish. And there’s nothing better than that.”
Fish Grilled In Fennel
Time:1 hour 15 minutes
1 Head Garlic, cloves peeled
1 Tablespoon Fresh Thyme Leaves
1/2 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil (may reduce in half for dietary purposes)
2 2.25 pound (1 kg) whole Yellowtail Snappers, Red Snappers, or Black Sea Bass, cleaned
Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper, to taste
4-6 Heads Fennel, branches and fronds untrimmed (fronds will be quite long)
1 Tablespoon zucchini in this gratin
1/2 cup Unsalted Butter (reduce by half for dietary purposes)
1 Cup heavy cream (reduce by half or substitute with half and half for dietary purposes)
Method: Place garlic cloves in small saucepan, cover with water, and simmer 15 minutes, until they are tender. Drain. Mash by hand or purée in small food processor. Mince 1 shallot, mix with the garlic, add half the thyme and, by hand or machine, beat in 3 tablespoons olive oil and the juice of 1/2 lemon to make a paste.
Cut 4 deep slashes in both sides of each fish. Rub the fish inside and out with some oil and juice of 1/2 lemon. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Fill slashes with garlic paste, and spread any remaining inside fish. Slice remaining shallot, and put slices in cavities. Slice one lemon, and put slices in cavities.
Cut off fennel bulbs, and remove a few frond sprigs for garnish. For each fish, place about three fennel branches, fronds attached, side by side lengthwise on work surface. Place one fish on bed of fennel, and top with about three more branches with fronds. With butcher’s cord, tie fennel around fish in 3 places. Drizzle with remaining olive oil.
Heat grill, preferably charcoal. Heat oven to 425° F (218° C). Butter a shallow 4-cup baking dish.
Slice off bottom half inch of fennel bulbs. Slice each bulb vertically, in 1/2-inch-thick slices. Place in saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook 3 minutes, drain and place in bowl of ice water. Drain and pat dry.
Arrange fennel slices, partly overlapping, in baking dish. Scatter with remaining thyme. Drizzle with cream, and strew with cheese.
Grill fish 10 to 15 minutes on each side, until tip of knife inserted in thickest part slips out easily and feels very warm when touched to your chin. While fish grills, place dish with fennel in oven, and bake about 15 minutes, until browned on top.
Presentation: To serve, snip off the strings around the fish, and remove the fennel. Remove the lemon and shallot slices from inside fish. Fillet fish, and arrange on platter; garnish with remaining lemon, cut in wedges, and reserved fennel sprigs. Serve baked fennel alongside.