I generally prefer my salmon raw or cured rather than cooked. But grilled salmon, still dark pink at the center and a little charred at the edges, is a soft, silky exception.
Grilling salmon to this degree of perfection isn’t easy, though.
First of all, salmon has a tendency to stick. If you don’t have a grilling basket, and if your grate isn’t clean and well oiled, the fish will glue itself onto the grill, then tear when you try to remove it. Always give the grate a brushing even if you think it’s clean enough. In this case, being extra fussy will work in your favor.
Second, grilled salmon is also easy to overcook, going from buttery to chalky in less time than it takes to open that chilled bottle of white you thought you were going to sip while you cooked. Open it before you start. Salmon grilling is no time for multitasking.
Placing the fish over indirect heat gives you a little more leeway. It slows the process, allowing the fish to cook more evenly than it would sitting directly over the fury of glowing coals, while still taking on their smoky taste. You’ll need to keep an eye on it, but a few distracted seconds won’t be disastrous.
Also, if you can buy your fish in one big piece, instead of individual servings, it will be less likely to overcook. It’s done when the surface is browned in spots, and the center, when poked with a knife, is tender but doesn’t yet flake.
Once cooked, you have loads of options for serving it, either plain with a squeeze of lemon or lime, or more gussied up.
I love turning grilled salmon into a salad, smothering it in a spicy, limey dressing while it’s hot so it can absorb all the flavors. And the flavors of this particular dressing were inspired by nuoc cham, the traditional Vietnamese dipping sauce made from lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and often chiles or garlic. I used shallots instead of garlic and added a little oil to turn it into a sweet, pungent dressing.
Then, just before serving, I plopped the fish onto a bed of crisp lettuces and vegetables, and topped it with fresh herbs. The fish fell apart into large, satiny chunks, and I ate it warm and tangy against the cool vegetables — and even cooler wine.
Recipe: Grilled Salmon Salad With Lime, Chiles and Herbs
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 30 minutes
2 small fresh red or green chiles or 1 large one, thinly sliced, seeds removed if you like
1 shallot (or 2 scallions, or 2 tablespoons red onion), thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fish sauce
Pinch of granulated sugar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil or grapeseed oil, plus more for brushing
1 1/4 pounds salmon fillet, preferably 1 large center-cut piece
8 cups salad greens, such as Little Gem, bibb or Boston lettuce
1 cup mixed soft herbs (such as cilantro, mint and basil), leaves and tender stems
1 cup thinly sliced radishes, cucumbers or both (optional)
1. Light the grill for indirect heat, or heat the oven to 450 degrees.
2. As the grill or oven heats up, make the dressing: Halve 1 lime and squeeze its juice into a small bowl. Add the chile slices, half of the sliced shallot (save the rest for serving), the fish sauce and a pinch each salt and sugar. Let sit for 1 minute to dissolve the salt, then whisk in the olive oil. It won’t emulsify, so mix again before using.
3. Brush the salmon with oil and place it in a grilling basket if you have one. Cook over the indirect (unlit) side of the grill, for 2 to 5 minutes per side, depending on how hot the grill is and how thick the salmon is. Note that individual fillets will cook faster than a single large piece. Check the salmon often. (Alternatively, roast the salmon on a baking sheet in the oven, until just cooked to taste, 7 to 12 minutes; you don’t have to flip it.)
4. As the salmon cooks, halve the other lime. Brush the cut sides with olive oil and grill, cut-side down, over direct heat until charred, about 1 minute. If using the oven, throw the halves, cut-side up, on the roasting pan with the salmon. They won’t char, but they will cook and mellow in flavor, which is the aim.
5. When the salmon is cooked, transfer it to a plate and spoon some dressing over it. Let it cool slightly, then break up the fish into large chunks.
6. Place greens, remaining shallots, herbs and radishes or cucumber, if using, in a large shallow bowl or on a platter, and add a little more of the dressing. Squeeze some of the juice from a charred lime half over it and drizzle with a little olive oil. Toss and taste, adding lime juice, olive oil or salt as needed.
7. Top with the salmon chunks and drizzle with more (or all) of the dressing. Serve with the remaining charred lime half on the side for squeezing.
And to Drink …
With the savory, herbal, pungent flavors of this Vietnamese-style dish, I would look for a lively white with plenty of acidity and ideally a small amount of residual sugar. Top of the list in this category would be Mosel rieslings labeled kabinett or spätlese, lightly sweet yet thrillingly balanced wines that are also low in alcohol. While they would be my first choice, many people reflexively reject sweet wines, so dry options would include grüner veltliner from Austria, Loire sauvignon blancs, pinot blancs, pinot gris from Oregon and Vouvrays and other dry chenin blancs. You could also drink sparkling wines with this dish. If you want a red, an easygoing cabernet franc from the Loire or a Beaujolais-Villages would do, lightly chilled.
— Eric Asimov