By PAUL SIDORIAK
I guess I have never come out and said it before, but I love fish! Seafood, to be specific, but it wasn’t always that way.
Growing up near the water, and abundant fresh seafood, I had little or no interest in eating it and stayed far away for the most part. In my late teens, I tried a few fried offerings like clams, and shrimp, but never anything smelling of low tide or that was excessively squishy.
I was 26 years old before I had a complete dinner where the main protein was from the sea. It was a business trip and my boss had a major craving for seafood. We had dinner reservations at a classic waterfront seafood restaurant in Seattle and met a client for a working dinner.
When I ordered a juicy steak for my entrée, my boss immediately stepped in and vetoed the beef selection. “When you are back home in Montana, you can order all the beef you want, but here in Seattle you are getting seafood,” she told me as she informed the waitress I would be having the night’s special – blackened shark – and I was going to like it.
And like it, I did. Although apprehensive, I was much less reluctant to try seafood and had more of an open mind toward it… for a bit.
The boss at my next job shortly thereafter had lived in Seattle for a while and was known for having an international palate. When Montana got its first sushi restaurant back around 1999, it seemed that he was scheduling a lot more sit-down meetings with me than he had before. All of them were at the new sushi place.
Now, I had only recently opened my mind to trying seafood in general, so raw seafood was really a test of courage. I think the first meeting I attended, his wife came along to sit in on the conversation and make sure we tried the Miso soup. They did the ordering and for the most part were merciful to me. I tried so hard to be brave and adventurous, but at that time little things like seaweed could make me gag without warning. When they saw my eyes begin to water and my napkin getting stuffed with who-knows-what, they took it upon themselves to become my sushi mentors.
Over the next few months, they had set extensive mentoring goals for me as a student of sushi, while holding themselves to a high pedigree as facilitators. I was instructed on some of the essentials: “Keep that rice out of the soy sauce. Ask the chef how the Uni looks today. Under no circumstances let us catch you pouring your own sake!”
They were tough, but fair and fortunately would never force me to play Follow The Culinary Leader when it came to an adventurous ordering.
I feel lucky I had good people show me the ropes on how to eat sushi without gagging and embarrassing myself. I have learned that if it comes from the ocean, chances are it is probably wonderful if prepared properly.
Recently, I had a relapse of fishy apprehension when my dad brought me some Atlantic striped bass, freshly caught on Long Island Sound in his home fishing waters. I had never tried striped bass, but it seemed I was under the gun to create something delicious out of it. I remembered I had seen a photo of fish cooked on a slab of Himalayan salt atop a grill a while back and figured I would give it a try.
My salt block is about ten inches long and two inches thick. I got it a while back but previously have had mixed results using it effectively. I let it heat up on the 400-degree grill for about 45 minutes.
Salt in slab form can hold heat or cold for long periods of time so it has some interesting applications. Here, the salt slab was used to have a nice searing surface for the fish, while allowing it to pick up the smokiness from the grill. One of the benefits of using the salt block is that the fish does not get all caught up in your grill grate and flake apart on you. A spatula works great for turning the fish and keeping it intact through the grilling process.
I soaked the bass in an Italian dressing to add some moisture, and seasoned it with a spicy rub. The fish grilled directly on the hot salt block and was beautifully cooked in about eight minutes.
While it rested, I put some sliced, seasoned veggies on the salt block and grilled them off to a nice caramel color. Interestingly enough, the salt block does not seem to really leave much of a salty taste on the food, but I assume it would suck some of the water out, concentrating the food’s flavor. Just for the heck of it, I threw some fresh peas on a mesh grate and grilled them as well.
The freshness of the fish and vegetables brings a simplistic flavor that captures the taste of summer in a single bite. The fish is firm, mild, and flaky with punctuated flavors from the grill. Naturally flavored by the summer’s sunshine, rain, heat, and cold, it seems like you can taste every sunrise and sunset in the veggies and peas. I store those flavors in my memory bank as a reminder of how special the short summer months are in the Mountain West.
It’s fun to think that I can actually pinpoint when I started being adventurous enough to try new cuisine, like fish. I can’t quite remember when I started tasting the seasonality of foods, but for now, I am just happy to savor the memories, while always having something to look forward to.
Check out Paul’s other tasty summer grilling recipes, Chinook Salmon with Grilled Rice, Hasselback Grilled Potatoes, and Cheese-Stuffed Burgers and Curly Hot Dogs, and stay tuned for more delicious grilling recipes all summer long!
Paul moved to Montana in 1996 with about a dozen friends from Lyndon State College in Vermont. He is still reluctantly paying his student loans and has carved out a career working as a supplier representative for various food and beverage products.
Paul enjoys grilling after a day on the water or an afternoon in the garden, where he has been known to grow heirloom tomatoes and peppers out of spite. Often cooking for extended family and friends, he takes a whimsical approach to cooking simple, seasonal dishes, while not taking it too seriously.
Paul does all of his grilling on the Big Green Egg Grill, available in Missoula at the Axmen.
You can read more of Paul’s grilling recipes at his blog site, Montana Mise en Place.