This affordable grilling basket is the key to mastering fish, delicate veggies, and small items on the grates
After some 20 years of grilling outdoors in the California sunshine, I finally bought a grilling basket. And I feel like an idiot for not having bought one sooner. A grilling basket is a brilliant contraption with a hinge, long handle, and locking grates in which you can sandwich fish, delicate vegetables, or anything that would otherwise stick to the grill or fall through gaps between the grates. I thought I was a better cook than I am, and under the spell of self-deception my summers have been scarred by so much unnecessary food waste: wayward shrimp charred on the coals, caramelized wedges of tender and sweet grilled red onion gone in the flames, whole fish unintentionally de-skinned by a sticky grate, pencil thin baby asparagus slipping to a carbonized demise.
It took one look at chef Bryant Ng’s Turmeric Grilled Sea Bass in food writer Aleksandra Crapanzano’s excellent new cookbook Eat. Cook. L.A.: Recipes from the City of Angels to inspire me to invest in a grilling basket (invest is probably too strong a word to use here; I scored a Nexgrill Flexible Grilling Basket for only $15 at Home Depot). Crapanzano’s book is collection of recipes from an impressive group of L.A. chefs: Bryant Ng (the man behind Santa Monica’s modern Vietnamese-inflected restaurant Cassia), Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (the super popular vodka fusilli from Jon & Vinny’s is in the book), Nancy Silverton of Mozza, and many more. But it was Ng’s crispy skinned, turmeric-kissed fish, topped with vibrant spring herbs, that spoke to me: it was so pretty, so just-charred, so whole-skinned, so crisp and tantalizing and attractive and perfectly intact. And the best part: the recipe looked easy. But I knew I’d need a grilling basket to pull off cooking such a delicate protein.
After a trip to Home Depot for the grilling basket and a stop at the farmers’ market for local red snapper (a fair substitute, so the recipe said), I went back home where I was promptly humbled trying to debone and butterfly the spiny fish. In the end, I left it whole and prepped the marinade that makes this dish sing: garlic cloves, Thai chiles, turmeric, and fish sauce go into the blender and onto the bass or snapper. In 20 minutes or so the fish takes to the deep and pungent turmeric and garlic mixture and the funky fermented briny punch of the fish sauce. Then it went into the basket and onto the hot grill. Since I didn’t have the benefit of a thin, butterflied fish, it took three times as long to cook (duh: thickness vs. thinness). The fresh herbs and limes brightened the whole thing up at the table. It was a fine meal that took me back to the first turmeric fish dish I’d eaten many summers ago at Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi. There you get to fry your own fish over a little brazier at the table and mix in fresh herbs. Ever since then I’ve associated the flavors of turmeric and fresh herbs with sultry summer heat.
But the real revelation was that grilling basket: the fish browned nicely, the skin crisped up, and never once stuck to the grill grate. The long handle kept my hand away from the heat and actually encouraged me to turn and reposition and flip the fish as hot spots revealed themselves. What can typically be a fraught process was a pleasure. Flip, cook, reposition, flip, cook, done.
You know how some people go down a rabbit hole with a convenience tool, like the Spiralizer or a mandoline, and all they do is talk about what they’ve made with it? I’m a little worried. This week I put lemon slices and red onions in the basket and served them as a side with some grilled pork loin. I’m going to slow grill a fennel bulb on Wednesday to toss into a salad, and on Friday I’m planning on grilling the last asparagus of the season without a worry. I’m doing grilled ratatouille this weekend. Wish me luck. I’m a basket case.
Get the Recipe: Turmeric Grilled Sea Bass