Grilling With Vinegar: Whole Fish Gets the Churrascaria Treatment

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Editor's Note: We're very excited to welcome writer, photographer, and cook Michael Harlan Turkell to the virtual pages of Serious Eats. In this series, Michael will share some of his favorite takes on grilling recipes from around the world, all focused on the interplay of vinegar and the grill—something he knows quite a bit about, as he traveled far and wide while writing his awesome vinegar-focused cookbook, Acid Trip (coming out in August 2017). You can preorder the book here.

On the 10x10-foot slab of concrete that serves as the back patio of my garden-level apartment sits a compact Smokey Joe series Weber grill. There, under the climbing hydrangea and ivy that creep up our neighbor's wall, my wife and I bask in the fresh air, realizing that we're wildly fortunate to have even the smallest semblance of outdoor space in New York City.

I usually restrict myself to food that fits the frame of the Smokey Joe's 14-inch-wide grill grate, a cooking space barely big enough for dinner for two (though I've managed to cook for full dinner parties on it, too). Lately my go-to showpiece has been grilled whole fish. I'm always on the hunt for whole 1- to 1 1/2-pound trout, mackerel, or branzini to stuff with lemon slices and handfuls of herbs. When I don't have those aromatics in the fridge, I turn to a simple alternative for dressing up grilled fish: molho à campanha.

I first came across this "vinaigrette sauce" (as I've seen it translated) at a Brazilian churrascaria (steakhouse), served alongside carne asada. Molho à campanha is more of a salsa than a vinaigrette, though—strikingly similar to Mexican pico de gallo.

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The main difference between the two is that molho turns to white wine vinegar for acidity, whereas pico gets it from citrus fruit. In both cases, the bright, fresh flavors work really well with the deep char of seared meat. And since they also reminded me a bit of the components of a ceviche, I thought, Why the heck not pair them with grilled fish? Plus, they're so colorful and vibrant, they'd really bedeck a branzino.

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I decided to do an experiment. I made two identical salsas with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and herbs. In one went lemon juice and in the other went white wine vinegar. Both went into the fridge, whereupon I ate them with tortilla chips for the next few days. I found that the one made with citrus seemed to degrade the texture of tomatoes more quickly, whereas the vinegar did a much better job of leaving the tomatoes firm and intact. The one with vinegar kept its freshness for much longer, too, and I think the flavors coalesced even better since vinegar doesn't oxidize like fresh lemon juice does. Even the herbs remained more vibrant in the vinegar, almost as if they'd just been been picked. In a sense, it's like the vinegar acts as a quick-pickling brine, helping to preserve the vegetables.

White wine vinegar is particularly great for molho, because it doesn't mess as much with the colors of the vegetables they way red wine vinegar can, dying everything a cloudy hue.

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Spooned onto grilled fish, molho à campanha provides a welcome crunch, providing a palate-cleansing bite for even the oily, fishy varieties like mackerel. Given how well it holds in the refrigerator, you can make molho ahead, and then set it on the table while you're grilling, just long enough to take off the chill and let the flavors bloom. This one's so simple that the next time you're entertaining with chips and salsa, you might as well have the salsa be molho and throw a fish on the grill, too.

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