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Blackened Fish

A CAJUN CLASSIC TRAVELS OUTSIDE TO CLEAR THE SMOKE

Ever since Paul Prudhomme popularized his signature dish of blackened redfish in the 1980s, blackened anything has become popular in restaurants far from Cajun country. And with good reason. When done right, the dark brown, crusty, sweet-smoky, toasted exterior provides a rich contrast to the moist, mild-flavored fish inside.

This dish is traditionally prepared in a white-hot cast-iron skillet and requires a lot of butter, both to rub on the fish before it’s dredged in the spices and to grease the pan. As with most restaurant dishes, you don’t want to know how much fat is used. Prudhomme’s original recipe called for 6 tablespoons of butter per serving. (His more recent versions have slimmed down considerably.)

But there’s an even bigger problem with this recipe—it generates so much smoke that Prudhomme quips in one of his books that the preparation of this dish will set off not only your smoke alarm, but your neighbor’s alarm as well. To keep the fire department at bay, we suggest moving this dish to the grill. No need to worry if your kitchen ventilation system is up to snuff. And making this dish on a grill rather than in a hot pan means no butter is needed during the cooking process. (We still use butter in the application of the spice coating.)

But grilling fish is tricky business and a buttery spice coating makes it even more likely to stick. It’s fine if the smoke stays outdoors, but you do want the grilled fish to make it back into the kitchen. Slashing and chilling the fish and oiling the cooking grate make this recipe grill-friendly, so the only alarm ringing will be the one in your head from all those Cajun spices.

WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS

Here’s the Rub

Mixing your own blackening rub delivers superior results. Our recipe uses garlic powder and onion powder so there are no bits of the fresh stuff to burn on the grill. Coriander, which can take the heat, gives a fragrant floral aroma. Three kinds of pepper (cayenne, black, and white) add a range of heat levels.

Bloom in Butter

Raw spices will burn on the grill, but sautéing them in melted butter releases additional flavors and turns them several shades darker (bright red to dark, rusty brown). After the spice mixture cools, break apart the large clumps and coat the fish on both sides. By the time the fish cooks through, the spices are blackened.

Slash the Skin

Skin-on fillets will buckle when grilled because the skin shrinks back, pulling the flesh along with it. And curled fillets won’t cook evenly. Slashing the skin prevents it from contracting more quickly than the flesh. Score the skin at 1-inch intervals, making sure not to cut too deep into the flesh.

Catch and Release

To keep the fish from sticking to the grill, you have to take some preventive measures. First, chill the fish. At room temperature, the fillets become floppy and will stick more readily. Second, heat the grill, scrape the grill grate clean with a brush, and wipe it with oil-dipped paper towels at least five times, until the grate is black and glossy. To cook, place the fish diagonal to the grill grate with skin side facing down. To flip, slide one spatula underneath the fillet to lift, while using another to help support the fish as it’s flipped. When used in tandem, these measures take the fear out of grilling fish.

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Cooking spices in butter creates a rub with big flavor and superior sticking power.

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Grilled Blackened Red Snapper

SERVES 4

RECIPE DETAILS

Timeline

  • 10 minutes to prepare spice rub (let it cool while grill is heating)
  • 20 minutes to heat grill and prepare fish
  • 10 minutes to grill fish

Essential Tools

  • 10-inch skillet to make spice rub
  • Sharp paring knife to slash fish
  • Tongs for holding paper towels used to oil cooking grate
  • Thin metal spatula to flip fish, plus second wide spatula to support fish while flipping

Substitutions & Variations

  • Striped bass, halibut, or grouper can be substituted for the snapper; if the fillets are thicker or thinner, they will have slightly different cooking times.
  • If you prefer, serve the fish with a bright, fruit-based salsa. We particularly like a mix of pineapple, cucumber, shallot, chile, ginger, mint, and lime juice, but other combinations such as mango-jícama or peach-red bell pepper are equally good.

Keep the fish refrigerated until ready to grill. Serve the fish with lemon wedges or a classic Creole Rémoulade (recipe follows).

  • 2 tablespoons paprika
  • 2 teaspoons onion powder
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • ¾ teaspoon ground coriander
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon white pepper
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 (6- to 8-ounce) red snapper fillets, ¾ inch thick
  1. Combine paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, coriander, salt, pepper, cayenne, and white pepper in bowl. Melt butter in 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Stir in spice mixture and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant and spices turn dark rust color, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer mixture to pie plate and let cool to room temperature. Use fork to break up any large clumps.
  2. 2A. For a Charcoal Grill: Open bottom vent completely. Light large chimney starter two-thirds filled with charcoal briquettes (4 quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour evenly over half of grill. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent completely. Heat grill until hot, about 5 minutes.
  3. 2B. For a Gas Grill: Turn all burners to high, cover, and heat grill until hot, about 15 minutes.
  4. Clean cooking grate, then repeatedly brush grate with well-oiled paper towels until black and glossy, 5 to 10 times.
  5. Meanwhile, pat fillets dry with paper towels. Using sharp knife, make shallow diagonal slashes every inch along skin side of fish, being careful not to cut into flesh. Place fillets skin side up on large plate. Using your fingers, rub spice mixture in thin, even layer on top and sides of fish. Flip fillets over and repeat on other side (you should use all of spice mixture).
  6. Place fish skin side down on grill (hotter side if using charcoal) with fillets diagonal to grate. Cook until skin is very dark brown and crisp, 3 to 5 minutes. Carefully flip fish and continue to cook until dark brown and beginning to flake and center is opaque but still moist, about 5 minutes longer. Serve.

RÉMOULADE MAKES ABOUT ½ CUP

  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • 1½ teaspoons sweet pickle relish
  • 1 teaspoon hot sauce
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh parsley
  • ½ teaspoon capers, rinsed
  • ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 small garlic clove, minced
  • Salt and pepper

Pulse all ingredients in food processor until well combined but not smooth, about 10 pulses. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to serving bowl. (Sauce can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.)

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