Grilling Seafood Is So Easy a City Boy With a Smokey Joe Can Do It

A beginner’s guide to whole red snapper, scallop kebabs, soft-shell crab and an entire clambake

August 6, 2020 12:51 am
grilling seafood
A whole fish and veggies on a portable kettle grill? Believe it.
Paul Lukas

Now is the summer of our discontent. It’s hot, we’re stuck at home, and we’ve cycled through our entire cooking repertoires a few times over. It’s particularly tough on city folks, most of whom don’t have exterior space. At least suburbanites can fire up the grill on their decks or in their backyards; what’s a lowly apartment-dweller to do?

If you’re a frustrated would-be griller, I have some excellent news for you. First, those little mini-kettle charcoal grills, like the Weber Smokey Joe or the Cuisinart CCG190 (which I use myself), are surprisingly effective. They may look like the grilling equivalent of an Easy-Bake Oven, but they absolutely get the job done. True, they can only cook relatively small amounts of food at a time, but you won’t be having large gatherings during the pandemic anyway. These small grills are perfect for making dinner for two, or just for yourself.

Moreover, the mini-kettles are lightweight and easily portable. So even if you don’t have a yard, you can bring them to the park, the beach, your front stoop, an empty parking lot or anyplace else you’d like to grill. You won’t even need much charcoal, since you can only fit a few dozen briquettes into a mini-kettle anyway.

Ah, but what should you cook? Sure, you could do burgers and dogs, or even a pair of nice steaks (although there are other ways to cook those with fire). But this is summer — why not be a bit more festive, especially in a year when festiveness has been in critically short supply, by grilling up some seafood?

If the idea of cooking seafood sounds tricky or scary, don’t worry — it doesn’t have to be. The four preparations that follow are all extremely simple and quick. Each one serves two adults (you can adjust the ingredients as needed for more or fewer people), and each provides that oceanic flavor of summer we could all use right about now.

Grilled clambake
Grilled clambake, with optional beer. (Paul Lukas)
Paul Lukas

1. Grilled Clambake

A traditional clambake is done in a pit on the beach, but you can get the same effect by taking two 20″ lengths of heavy-duty aluminum foil, laying them down in an “X” pattern, and then folding up the edges to form little pouches. You’ll need a separate pouch for each person.

You can include all sorts of things in a clambake — lobster, mussels, assorted vegetables. But we have a small grill and we’re trying to keep things simple, so let’s go with a dozen littleneck clams, two links of andouille sausage cut into 1″ pieces, an ear of corn cut into 2″ rounds, and a dozen fingerling potatoes cut into quarters. That should be enough for two people. While you’re slicing the sausage, corn and potatoes, melt half a stick of butter in a measuring cup and add a few teaspoons of Old Bay seasoning to it (or cayenne pepper, or whatever spices you happen to like).

Divide up potatoes, corn, sausage and clams into each pouch, with the clams going in last. Top each pouch with half of the melted butter, and also add a splash of beer (this will provide steam to help cook everything). You should end up with a happy jumble of elements. Then seal the foil pouches, but not too tight — you want to leave enough room for the clams to open.

Light a charcoal fire in your mini-kettle grill. When the coals are mostly white, put the pouches onto the grill — they should just barely fit — and then cover them with the grill’s lid, leaving the air vent fully open. (If the pouches are too high to allow the lid to close fully, that’s fine. Just leave the lid sitting atop the pouches — don’t force it down.)

After 20 minutes, grab a fork and open the pouches. What you want is for all the clams to have opened and for the potatoes to be tender. If either of those hasn’t happened yet, let it go another few minutes.

When all the clams have opened, transfer the contents of each pouch into a bowl. The clams will have released a lot of liquid during cooking, so be careful not to lose any of it — it’s great for sopping up with bread. Enjoy!

Crab sandwicg
The shell is soft; the taste is fantastic. (Paul Lukas)
Paul Lukas

2. Grilled Soft-Shell Crab Sandwiches

Soft-shell crabs are a special treat available only during summer, when Maryland blue crabs molt and shed their hard outer shells. When purchasing them, ask your fishmonger to clean them (this entails removing their faces and spongy lungs, which are inedible), and be sure to cook them on the day of purchase.

For two sandwiches, you’ll need two crabs, two Kaiser rolls (or hamburger buns, or sandwich-size English muffins), an ear of corn (remove the silk but keep the husk attached and folded back up over the kernels), half a stick of melted butter spiked with about half a lemon’s worth of juice, some olive oil cooking spray, and, if you’re so inclined, some capers (which add a bit of brininess).

When your charcoal is ready to go, add the ear of corn. Cook the corn for about 12-15 minutes, turning occasionally. Remove it from the grill and pull back the husk to expose the kernels, and let it cool for a few minutes. When it’s cool enough to handle, stand the ear vertically in a bowl and use a sharp knife to strip the kernels off the ear and into the bowl. (If you prefer, you can strip the kernels from the raw ear of corn in your kitchen, sauté them for a few minutes in a tablespoon of oil or butter, and bring them pre-cooked to the grilling site.)

Pat the crabs dry and give their tops a quick coating with the olive oil spray. Then put the crabs, top side down, on the grill. If the buns aren’t already halved, cut them in half lengthwise and put them on the grill as well. Turn over the crabs and buns after three minutes and let them cook for another two minutes, keeping a close eye on the buns to make sure they don’t burn. Then remove everything from the grill.

On the bottom half of each bun, spoon out some of the cooked corn to create a bed of kernels. Add a spoonful of melted butter, then top with a crab, more butter, and, if you like, some capers. Voilà — dig in!

(If you’re a serious soft-shell aficionado, you can go with two crabs per bun, creating a double-decker crabwich.)

Seafood kebab
Great shellfish converge in this dish (Paul Lukas)
Paul Lukas

3. Grilled Shrimp and Scallop Kebabs

You may instinctively think of kebabs as something with beef or pork or chicken. But everything’s more fun when it’s served on a stick, and that definitely includes seafood. Shrimp and scallops are a good place to start.

For this preparation, you want about two-thirds of a pound apiece of jumbo shrimp and sea scallops. Try to find scallops that are labeled “dry scallops.” Don’t worry, they’re not dried out — the term “dry” means they haven’t been treated with a phosphate preservative. Dry scallops are more expensive than wet ones, but they’re a lot more flavorful, so they’re worth it.

After procuring the seafood, submerge 10 bamboo skewers in a bowl of tap water for about an hour, which will prevent them from burning on the grill. While they’re soaking, peel the shrimp. You can discard the shells or save them for making a seafood stock later on.

It’s good to double up on the skewers, using two of them per kebab, because that makes it easier to turn the kebabs while they’re cooking. Begin by taking a shrimp and impaling its back and front ends on a pair of skewers. Push it down to the bottom and then add a scallop. Continue to alternate shrimps and scallops until the kebab is full, and then repeat with another pair of skewers. You should end up with at least four and possibly five kebabs — plenty for two people. When they’re ready to go, give both sides a sprinkling of salt and pepper and a quick spritz of olive oil cooking spray.

When your coals are hot, place the kebabs onto the grill and let them cook for two minutes. Then turn them and cook them for another two minutes.

That’s it! Remove the kebabs from the grill and add a good squeeze of lemon. Serve them with corn on the cob or a salad, or just on their own.

Grilled snapper
One grilled snapper, after the grilling’s done. (Paul Lukas)
Paul Lukas

4. Grilled Whole Red Snapper

There’s a nice air of ceremony about grilling a whole fish. There are plenty of varieties you could choose, but a two-pound red snapper is aesthetically pleasing and easy to find at most fishmongers. It’s also the right size to feed two people and should just barely fit on your mini-kettle grill.

Ask your fishmonger to scale and clean the fish, but leave the head and tail intact. When you get the fish home, stuff its empty belly cavity with some aromatics. I like to use three or four thinly sliced lemon rounds, a similar number of smashed garlic cloves and a few sprigs of thyme, but you could also use ginger, scallions, sliced jalapeños or whatever strikes your fancy.

Sprinkle both sides of the fish with salt and pepper and then add a quick coating of olive oil cooking spray. Also apply the spray to your grill rack before placing it over the hot coals.

When the coals are ready, lay the fish across the center the grill (it should just fit, and it’s okay if the tail extends beyond the kettle’s rim). Leave it alone for seven or eight minutes and then use a spatula and some tongs to carefully turn it over along its spine, so the stuffed ingredients don’t fall out. Let it cook for another seven to eight minutes and then remove it to a platter. The skin will be at least browned and possibly blackened, but that’s fine — it’ll be a crunchy treat.

To serve, lay the fish on one side and remove one fillet by cutting along the spine and carefully remove the meat. Then turn the fish over and repeat on the other side. Enjoy with corn on the cob, a salad or whatever side dishes you prefer.

Paul Lukas also likes to grill meat, vegetables, kale, fruit and just about anything else you can think of. When not grilling, he spends a lot of time obsessing about sports uniforms.


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