Friday, August 19, 2016

James Beard and Grilled Salmon

Recently I was talking with a friend, who’s entertained my family on multiple occasions, so I know she’s a good cook. We drifted to talking about cookbooks we liked, and I mentioned James Beard. She said, “Who?”

Oh, dear. And here I thought he was an icon of American cuisine. There’s a cooking prize named for him, right?

I won’t say I met him, but once, years ago, I was having lunch in one of my favorite Berkeley restaurants, the Fourth Street Grill (alas, now gone, but it was terrific when it was new) and in walked the unmistakable James Beard in all his very large glory. Of course I recognized him immediately.

And now he’s all but forgotten. But not by me! When I was growing up, for some reason we had a copy of James Beard’s Treasury of Outdoor Cooking, even though we were living in an apartment at the time and had no place to grill anything. It was almost an art book, with beautiful large format, full-page pictures. It was published in 1960, and—you won’t be surprised—I still have my mother’s copy. 

The recipes are interesting because they’re more broad suggestions than detailed instructions. Some are almost tongue in cheek, like the one where you should find a whole salmon, nail it to a plank of wood, and prop it up at an angle over your fire to cook it. (I didn’t try that one.)

But I had a nice 1-1/2 pound piece of salmon, thick enough to stand up to grilling, so I thought I’d pay homage to the immortal Beard and try one of those recipes. (Note: we have a vintage Weber grill—no frills, no dials or bells and whistles, no propane tanks. It does the job.)

One comment before we grab that fish: mid-20th-century cookbooks tend to be a little conservative with their spicing. To my mind, a half-teaspoon of any spice isn’t worth the effort. So I tend to ramp up the spices, and experiment with substituting ingredients--as I did for this recipe.

Sesame Fish, as inspired by James Beard

Fish (Beard suggested using any largish fish that can stand up to grilling, and also using a whole fish, split. I had that nice big chunk of fresh Maine Salmon. Substitution #1.)

Cooking oil, or oil mixed with butter (I was worried this would be dull, so I added just a dash of sesame oil. Substitution #2)

Sesame seeds (the recipe called for the usual tan ones. Nope, didn’t have any. But I did have black sesame seeds. Since the purpose of the seeds was to give some crunch to the fish, rather than flavor, the black ones worked fine—and hid any bits of the fish that might be a wee bit overcooked. Substitution #3)—enough to provide a layer than will cover the fish (not the skin side).

A fire (Weber grill. Over-the-counter charcoal. A few random chunks of hardwood charcoal. Aha! I have applewood chips for variety. Soak, drain and add the chips to the fire right before cooking—and watch out for the smoke!)


Spread the oil/butter on the flesh side of the fish. Add salt and pepper, then press on the sesame seeds to form a uniform layer.

No, it's not burned--those are the
black sesame seeds
Light your fire. When the coals are ready (for me this usually takes about half an hour), spread the coals out, and add the drained wood chips if you’re using them.

Applewood chips

The fire's ready!
Place the fish on the grill, skin side down (okay, Substitution #4: my fish would no doubt turn into an unholy mess if I put it directly on my grill and then tried to pry it off intact, seasoned though the grill is. But I have a nice tray with perforations for the smoke plus handles to carry it, and laid my fish on that. Problem solved!)

Cook for roughly 10 minutes, depending on the kind of fish and how thick it is. I can attest that this piece of salmon was still nicely pink in the middle after 10 minutes over a very active fire. If you’re worried about cooking it through, you could cover your grill for the first five minutes (more smoke flavor that way!), then open it up for the final five minutes to crisp it.

Divide into portions and serve, with fresh corn and a salad. And remember James Beard!

Seeds of Deception, coming in October from Berkley!

No barbecues--it's mid-December in the book.

If you want to know a secret, the house in the picture is based on one where I lived when I was a child. For the plot I needed a large patio that the neighbors couldn't see.

Available for pre-order at Amazon (where it seems to be on sale at this moment, although who knows how long that will last?) and Barnes and Noble.


  1. that looks wonderful Sheila! I can't believe James Beard is forgotten...

    I just bought John some cedar planks to try grilling with--this recipe should work well on one of those too!

  2. I haven't tried cedar planks, although I've seen them Do you soak them first, so they don't burn? Or are they supposed to burn?

  3. Oh, dear! James Beard is getting lost to the ages?! How sad. I, too, have several Beard books, including Beard On Bread.

    Great tips and substitution notes. This sound like a winner.

    1. I have that one too, and I think one he did for pasta. There may be more, since I can't seem to stop buying cookbooks at flea markets and yard sales.

  4. Many of Beard's cookbooks are now available as ebook. My dinner group did a Beard dinner last spring that was a huge success. Of course, Oregonian think of him as Local Boy Makes Good.

    1. I think I'd find cooking from an ebook challenging (since I can't seem to remember how much of this or that the recipe called for, for more than about a minute), unless you print out the recipe. I've long fantasized about having a computer screen embedded in the refrigerator door at about eye level, so you could load and read recipes easily.

  5. I have two James Beard cookbooks one of which is falling apart! (Of course I started cooking in 1974.) His recipe for BBQ sauce is still the one I use and also for his chocolate sauce and gingerbread. We love salmon--I will have to try this. We finally traded in our Weber (circa 1987--just like yours) for a gas grill.