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Grilling with flair

It wouldn't be summer without the smell of smoldering charcoal and whiff of charred meat.

After consecrating the grill grates with hamburgers and hot dogs, look elsewhere to keep mealtime inspiration burning.

Fish and shellfish are the next step for avid grillers. While many types grill up beautifully, the prospect of mangling delicate fillets scares off the uninitiated, says Mary Shaw, culinary educator for Ashland Food Co-op, which offered free, in-store sampling of grilled foods throughout June.

"We've had so many people ask us how to grill fish," says Shaw.

The first step is recognizing which swimming species withstand baptism by fire. Firm-fleshed, oily fish — salmon, halibut, swordfish and tuna — hold up on the grill while more delicate-fleshed rockfish and cod do not, says Shaw. Surprisingly, tilapia takes well to the grill.

"Fish basically don't have connective tissue," she says.

But if fillets retain the skin, cook that side down because skin attains a crispy, contrasting texture and also helps keep the meat intact. A judicious coat of oil on the grates, as well as a soak in marinade that contains some oil should keep any fish from sticking, she says. So do cooking on a cedar plank or in a grilling basket.

A foolproof technique, says Shaw, is encasing fish in a packet of some sort — aluminum foil, banana leaves, Swiss chard or kale leaves brushed with a little olive oil, soaked corn husks and wood grilling papers. Wrapping up meat not only safeguards it but concentrates the taste. Natural swaddlings lend their own flavors while soaking them in juice and wine, rather than water adds another layer.

A swath of smoke also intensifies grilled foods. Casual cooks don't need to purchase a sophisticated smoker to impart hardwood flavors. Toss a few wood chips on the coals or into the smoker box of a gas grill. If a grill doesn't have a smoker box, substitute aluminum foil.

Soak a handful of wood chips for an hour, put them in the center of a 10-inch-square sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil, fold the foil around it and crimp the edges tightly. Poke holes in it with a skewer and drop it onto the heat. Soaking the wood chips for an hour first, slows the burning time but initially produces only steam.

Wood smoke should be white, not black, and confined inside the grill, so don't lift the lid to peek. If using a charcoal grill, keep the vents open and position the vent lid away from the coals. Keeping the vents open draws smoke from the charcoal and swirls it around the food.

Smoking foods should take place over a lower heat and for a longer time. But too much smoke also can ruin a dish. Apple or cherry woods add a hint of flavor that doesn't overwhelm meat. Hickory and oak yield that classic, smoked barbecue flavor that easily can become overwhelming. Use two parts apple wood to one part hickory or oak.

Wood chips are available where grills and grilling supplies are sold, also at The Butcher Shop in Eagle Point, which plans a free, seafood-grilling class from 10 to 11 a.m. Thursday, July 5. To sign up, call The Butcher Shop at 541-830-3369.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email slemon@mailtribune.com. McClatchy News Service contributed to this story.

Wood grilling papers are used to prepare Cedar-Wrapped Mahi-Mahi With Mango and Red Peppers. See the accompanying recipe. - MCT