Many years ago, I cooked lunch for 60 people under a canopy of trees in the gardens at Heide in Melbourne. When I was planning the menu I thought it would be really special to serve everyone grilled lobster, but I had no idea how I'd actually pull this off, not least because we were working in the middle of a park without a kitchen. The thought of cooking so many lobsters at once was also a bit nightmarish.
I enlisted the help of my friend Ian Curley, now chef at the European. "Don't worry. love. It'll be amazing and this is how we'll do it, awright?" he said, completely unfazed. "I'll cook the crays the night before in my restaurant and split 'em, then you finish them on the barbie just before serving, right?" I was a little dubious about pre-cooking the lobster a day ahead, but, as Ian promised, they were fantastic. The lobsters had a lovely barbecued flavour, but weren't dry, which they might have been had we cooked them entirely over the open flames. It was a good lesson.
Cooking delicate seafood on the barbecue can be daunting. Timing is everything, and temperature needs to be watched, too. Prawns turn rubbery with overcooking, while calamari cooked on a grill that's not hot enough is the definition of average.
When I first started grilling fish and seafood at Grossi Florentino, I learnt pretty quickly that unless the grill was impeccably clean and super-hot, the fish skin would stick and half of it would come off in a big mess. Plus, when the grill isn't hot enough, the seafood sort of steams in a smoky way rather than searing and roasting.
Getting enough heat is crucial, but there's a bit more to it. A little oil helps to keep things from sticking, but I really mean a little bit. Too much oil and flames will flare up and give the seafood a burnt or acrid flavour. Your barbie should also be kept spotlessly clean with wire brush and scraper. A dirty grill taints the taste of your food and increases the likelihood of sticking.
I prefer to barbecue fish whole because you get more flavour and the juiciness is better retained. It's a good idea to score the thicker parts of the flesh to ensure even cooking. But the real secret weapon is a fish grill: a hinged wire or metal holder that encloses the fish gently but securely. You can stuff the fish with herbs, baste it with flavoured oils as it cooks, and when it comes to that precarious turning, you've got a handle. Easy.
A few years ago, travelling in the north of Spain, I stopped in a fishing village called Getaria. Most of the restaurants specialised in seafood, and each had a grill out the front. A chef would cook all the fish and seafood directly over the hot coals, and these fish grills were their secret. Fantastic things. They're also useful when it comes to flipping the cooked fish onto a plate. That done, you just need to finish with a dressing - oregano and lemon on snapper is a particular favourite of mine.
Simplicity is a watchword with seafood, but that's not to say a good marinade can't work a little magic. Extra-virgin olive oil, fresh thyme, parsley, ginger, coriander, lemongrass, lemon zest, fennel fronds and of course salt are good places to start. Just take care with the amount of acid and salt you use and with how long you let your fish sit - the texture of the flesh can change a lot in a few hours. Going out of your way to get fish and seafood in the freshest and best condition and then keeping that fresh flavour to the fore always gives the best result.
Calamari is well suited to the grill as it can stand up to a really good charring. Prawns are excellent, too, but I prefer to cook them in their shell for added flavour and to prevent them drying out. Octopus has the virtue of being robust enough to take big flavours as well as being delicious if cooked very simply. Giant octopus is best suited to pre-cooking before being finished off on the grill. You can simmer it in wine and herbs and olive oil until tender, then cool it, clean the skin off a bit, and marinate it in oil before giving it a final finish on the hot plate. The first part of the cooking can be done a day ahead, which can be very handy.
You can tell fish is cooked when the flesh has turned from a translucent grey to opaque white. Check the thickest part by giving it a gentle prod with your finger - cooked flesh will give, not resist. When cooked, fish also oozes a milky liquid. And all fish and seafood will continue to cook off the heat, so remove it as soon as it's cooked and serve it at once. Unlike meat, it doesn't need to be rested.
To the barbecue, friends!