Summertime for me brings visions of ice-cold lemonade, cannonballs in the pool and that distinct taste of charcoal soot that enveloped the hot dogs and burgers of my Mississippi youth, because my dad, like all dads, believed the grill should stay at “volcano eruption” heat at all times.
That flavor, popular today but called “charred,” reminds me of another grilled dish we’d make that should’ve been better: blackened redfish. Whereas burgers and dogs can somewhat survive immolation, fish gets completely overwhelmed. (It didn’t help that the fish was covered in so much cayenne that if you got past the char, your lips would be on fire for what seemed like hours afterward.)
But despite its flaws, I always return to blackened redfish because it’s the perfect summer barbecue dish that even most fish haters will eat.
These days I forgo the grill and make it all under the broiler. I’ve found that topping the fillets with the spiced butter then broiling them creates just the right amount of caramelization and wisps of char at the edges. It also helps the skin curl inward slightly, creating a natural bowl for the melted butter.
And instead of paprika, which can often taste dusty, I swap in a more floral, mild chile: gochugaru, Korean red chile powder or flakes (the cayenne is still there, but now a balmier blaze). Serve it with a bright salad made of crunchy cucumbers and radishes and ripe sweet tomatoes, all lightly soaked in vinegar then dressed with a little toasted sesame oil. The vegetables offer a bit of relief from the spicy fish. But with this version, it’s more an exercise in the art of the burn, not a trial by fire.
“Blackened” Snapper With Crunchy Pickle Salad
40 minutes. Serves 4 to 8.
The skin is almost tender enough to cut with a spoon, but if that doesn’t appeal to you, remove the skin and cook the fillets the same way. The spiced butter won’t stay completely on the fillets but will still mix with the fish’s juices on the baking sheet, creating a delicious broth that you should spoon over the fillets when serving.
- 1 pound Persian or mini cucumbers (about 4), cut diagonally into 1-inch pieces
- 1 pound cherry tomatoes, halved
- 6 radishes (4 ounces), thinly sliced
- ½ cup white wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon Korean chile flakes
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more
- 1 ½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ to ½ teaspoon cayenne
- 4 small scallions, finely chopped, plus more for garnish
- 4 almond-sized garlic cloves
- 8 tablespoons (½ cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 8 skin-on red snapper fillets (about 6 ounces each)
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
- Cooked white rice or bread, for serving (optional)
- Position a rack 4 inches from the broiler element (or in the top position of your oven) and heat the broiler to high.
- In a large bowl, combine the cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes and vinegar and toss to combine. Let the vegetables chill in the refrigerator while you prep and cook the fish.
- In a small bowl, combine the Korean chile flakes, salt, black pepper, cayenne and scallions. Using a Microplane grater, grate the garlic over the spices. Add the butter and use a fork to mash and mix the aromatics and spices with the butter until evenly combined.
- Arrange the fish fillets, skin side up, on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Drop even spoonfuls of the butter on top of the fillets then place them under the broiler. Cook, rotating the baking sheet once halfway through cooking, until the scallions in the butter are caramelized, the fillet edges are lightly charred and the fillets are all cooked through, 10 to 12 minutes, depending on their thickness. You’ll know the fish is done when you can pierce the thickest part with the tip of a paring knife and the blade slides in and out with no resistance.
- Remove the fish from the oven and let rest on the pan for 5 minutes. While the fillets rest, drain the vegetables in a colander then return them to the bowl. Add both oils and the sesame seeds, season with salt, and toss to combine. Serve 1 to 2 fillets per person with plenty of the cold, crunchy vegetables and rice or bread, if you like.