Grilled tilapia

Grilling fish wrapped in leaves is a technique utilized in other cuisines, mostly Asian and Mexican. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)

I haven't been fishing with my dad since early high school. Yet every single time I cook or order fish, I think of my father. Reason being that fish and fishing always take center stage in his favorite stories. Overturned canoes, rainbow trout the size of his arm, the deep chill of the rivers out West, perfect fly-fishing conditions, the quantity of beer my brothers and cousin bring, the guides, the waters, the beauty of the catch and more. Thousands of photographs attest to the glistening skin, bulging eyes and utter freshness of the fish he's briefly met.

Mind you his best stories never involve actually eating the fish, save for a shore lunch or two. His fishing is for the sport, the camaraderie of guys, the solitude of water. The cooking of fish primarily centers on his home grill, with fish carefully selected at reputable markets. He's taught us the fine art of grilling over charcoal embers. This Father's Day we'll return the favor and grill for him.

Carefully that is, since grilling fish offers lots of room for errors: fire too hot, fish too thin, fish breaks while turning, fish underseasoned, etc.

My solution: Don't cook fish directly on the grill. Instead, I opt for grill accessories such as grilling baskets, perforated pans and silicone grill mats. My favorite fish grilling accoutrements, such as wood planks and sturdy fresh leaves, also add flavor.

Grilling fish wrapped in leaves is a technique utilized in other cuisines, mostly Asian and Mexican. I'm particularly fond of seasoning mild-tasting fish fillets with zesty curry paste and grilling them wrapped in aromatic leaves such as banana leaves. These packets make the cooking nearly foolproof since the leaf prevents the fish from sticking to the grill and it holds in moisture to prevent drying.

You'll find banana leaves in the freezer section of most Mexican markets, international supermarkets (such as Tony's in the Chicago area) and Asian grocery stores. Simply let the leaves thaw on the counter until you can unfold them and cut off the squares needed for the recipe. The remaining leaves can be refrozen for later use.

Like many fathers, my dad believes in the flavor of wood paired with the crisp, clean flavors of seafood. He cooks on hardwood charcoal only; we usually follow suit. However, both the recipes that follow taste fantastic on the gas grill as well. Especially when cooking on the wood grilling planks readily available at Whole Foods, Williams-Sonoma and most specialty cookware shops.

For the planked fish recipe, I choose thick, meaty Copper River salmon, Alaskan King salmon and Alaskan halibut. Their season pairs perfectly with Father's Day.

I like to serve the brown sugar grilled fish with a side salad of lime-dressed watercress and grill-roasted potatoes. We make variations of these grilled potato packets all summer long. Pair them with anything you grill or transform them into warm salads. Saute leftover potatoes in a little olive oil the next day until crispy and browned, then stir in chunks of leftover grilled fish for a quick grilled "hash." It's the stuff of fish stories for the next generation.

Brown sugar grilled salmon on cedar planks

Prep: 10 minutes
Soak: 30 minutes or more
Cook: 12 minutes
Servings: 4


2 wood grilling planks, such as cedar, alder, maple

1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons whole-grain Dijon mustard

1 ½ teaspoons chili powder

¼ teaspoon salt

4 wild-caught salmon fillets, about 8 ounces each, rinsed, patted dry

Fresh herbs

1. Soak planks in water, at least 30 minutes or up to 4 hours.

2. Thoroughly mix sugar, mustard, chili powder and salt in a small bowl. Place salmon on plate, skin side down. Spread sugar mixture thickly over the top of the fillets. If desired, refrigerate the fish for up to several hours.

3. Heat a gas grill to medium-high heat or prepare a charcoal grill.

4. Remove the planks from the water and place fish on them, leaving a little space between each fish. Place on the grill. Cover the grill; cook without turning the fish, until the fish almost flakes, 10-12 minutes. Remove planks from grill. Carefully transfer fish to heated serving plates. Garnish with some fresh herbs; serve immediately.

Nutrition information:
Per serving: 437 calories, 15 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 125 mg cholesterol, 29 g carbohydrates, 45 g protein, 449 mg sodium, 0 g fiber.

Grilled tilapia in banana leaves with mango-red onion relish

Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 15 minutes
Servings: 4

Note: Serve the fish with basmati rice. If banana leaves are unavailable, line a square of foil with escarole or spinach leaves and wrap the fish up in the leaves and foil.


4 squares, each about 14 inches, of fresh or frozen thawed banana leaves

4 thick tilapia fillets, about 6 ounces each

2 tablespoons Indian-style curry paste or red or green Thai curry paste thinned with a little water

2 large ripe mangoes

1 medium red onion

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt to taste

1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley, plus sprigs for garnish

Juice of 1/2 lime

1Prepare a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill to medium heat.

2Lay leaves on work surface. Top each with a piece of fish. Smear fish generously with curry paste on one side. Wrap to completely enclose fish in leaves. Secure leaf with a wooden pick.

3Cut mango along the pit into thick slabs, leaving the skin on. Cut onion into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Sprinkle mango and onion slices with olive oil and salt. Grill directly over the heat, turning once, until golden on both sides, about 4 minutes total. Transfer to a cutting board.

4Add fish packets to grill. Cover grill; cook without turning until fish nearly flakes when pierced in the thickest part with the tip of a knife, usually 6 minutes.

5Meanwhile, dice onion. Cut mango flesh away from skin into small pieces. Mix onion and mango in small bowl with parsley. Season with lime juice and more olive oil (usually 1 teaspoon) and salt to taste.

6To serve, open fish packets; top with mango-onion relish. Garnish with parsley.

Nutrition information:
Per serving: 354 calories, 7 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 152 mg cholesterol, 28 g carbohydrates, 46 g protein, 484 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.

Grilled potato packets
Place a 20-inch length of heavy-duty foil on the counter. Place another 20-inch length across it to form a cross. Place 1 1/2 pounds scrubbed-clean small (2-inch diameter) mixed potatoes (cut in half) in center of the foil. Drizzle generously with 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. Top with several fresh herb sprigs (such as rosemary, thyme, parsley) and generous grindings of salt and pepper. Wrap tightly to completely enclose potatoes. Place packet directly over the coals. Grill until tender when pierced with a knife, about 30 minutes. Discard herbs before serving.