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This time of year, the welcoming rays of golden sunlight in the late afternoon is matched only by the primitive thrill of lighting up the grill.

When you're a seafood lover and a grilling aficionado, there's nothing more satisfying than putting together a spring clambake on a beach or in the back yard.

Sonoma County restaurateurs Mark and Terri Stark found themselves grilling up a perfect storm this spring after they bought a new fire pit for their backyard Shangri-La. After a quick trip to the farmers' market, they simply threw a briny array of shellfish and mollusks on the grill, along with fresh bread and spring veggies like asparagus and artichokes.

"I marinated the seafood really simply, in a tangerine olive oil," Stark said. "We just threw them all on the grate, then served a big platter of seafood with grilled bread and vegetables."

Born and raised on the Eastern shore of Maryland, Stark has always had one hand in the water, fishing around for edible creatures from the waters just outside his front door.

"My neighbors were oystermen on the Chesapeake Bay," he recalled. "They would catch eel and ship it back to Japan. In the summer, we'd go out looking for soft-shell crab."

At Willi's Seafood & Raw Bar in Healdsburg — the busiest of the couple's four restaurants in Sonoma County — Stark pays tribute to his East Coast roots while giving a nod to the high-flavor, fusion-style dishes of Latin America.

"Willi's Seafood is East Coast meets South America, and more specifically, Peru," Stark aid. "A lot of Japanese people migrated to Peru in the 1940s, so there's a big Asian influence."

Boasting a vibrant cocktail bar and a raw bar brimming with oysters and clams, Willi's Seafood features everything from New England-style seafood rolls and fried clams to Latin American ceviches and tartares. Skewered meats and a variety of eclectic, small plates round out the innovative menu.

For home cooks who want to entertain this Memorial Day, the Starks suggested setting up a buffet with some grilled fish, shellfish and mollusks for a make-your-own seafood taco station.

A taco buffet station is an easy way to feed a crowd without breaking the bank or your own back. Just make the salsas ahead of time, then grill the seafood and the tortillas at the last minute.

At the restaurant, the Starks serve Grilled Fish Tacos marinated in achiote paste and tangerine olive oil, with the "usual suspects": grilled corn tortillas, roasted tomato salsa, pickled onions and some avocado salsa on the side.

"The same marinade would work with fish, shrimp or scallops," Stark said. "We like to use a firm white fish like mahi-mahi, but you could also use a local cod, like ling cod, or snapper."

Sliced cabbage is the traditional foil for the soft, unctuous fish in fish tacos, because it adds a bit of crunch and texture. But in spring, it's more seasonal to go with a young lettuce.

"The cabbage is gone now, but you've got beautiful arugula and fennel, to make a Sonoma-style taco," Stark said. "And instead of a tomato salsa, you could marinate some cherry tomatoes."

At Willi's, the fish tacos come wrapped in a rustic, handmade corn tortilla from La Tortilla Factory. The tortillas can be kept warm in foil or in an insulated tortilla holder.

Along with high-quality tortillas, it's important to procure the freshest seafood possible, from a reputable fishmonger.

"If you're going to eat fish, you need to eat the good stuff," Terri Stark said.

For starters — guests need a little something to snack on with their tropical cocktail — the choices are endless, from guacamole and ceviche to Colombian arepas, which are tasty little corn cakes enrichened with sour cream and cheese.

At Willi's Seafood, the Starks serve a spicy Tuna Tartare with Jalape?s, Cashews, Ginger and Coconut Milk.

The Asian-style appetizer, which includes fish sauce from Vietnam, pairs well with a lightly salted taro or vegetable chip.

One of the challenges of cooking seafood on the grill is making sure it doesn't escape through the large spaces between the grates.

"The typical home barbecue doesn't have seafood-style grates," Stark said. "But you can outfit your barbecue by setting a steel grate with small holes over your grill."

Stark suggests picking up such a grate at your local hardware store for a few bucks — much cheaper than you'd pay for a fancy seafood basket or grill from a kitchen store.

To cook seafood, it's also helpful to have an array of skewers on hand, a grill brush for cleaning the grate, some tongs to move the food around, basting brushes to glaze the food, and a wide, flexible metal spatula for flipping fish.

A pair of gloves, a squirt bottle with water for flare-ups and a towel to coat the grates with oil — imperative if you don't want the delicate seafood to stick to the grates — also come in handy.

Since most seafood cooks very quickly — it can go from tender and sweet to overcooked and rubbery in seconds — you should keep your grill top open and be sure to keep one eye on the proceedings.

Also, make sure you've got your wine glass handy so you don't have to leave the grill at any time. For Stark, grilling is always a joy, even when he's not feeding his own family and friends.

"I love working with fire," Stark said. "When I do a catering with my Big Red barbecue, it's almost like I'm not working."

In his new fire pit at home, Stark uses mesquite charcoal for heat and wood for flavor in his fire pit. Those who cook on gas should set their flame to medium high.

For added flavor, you can add mesquite or hickory wood chips, safely tucked into a small metal container, to your gas grill.

For more grilling recipes, the new cookbook, "Latin Grill" (Chronicle Books, 2010) by Colombian-born chef Rafael Palomino, offers lots of simple but flavorful dishes, from Grilled East Coast Oysters with Corn Jalape? Salsita to Grilled Sea Scallops with Avocado and Apple Salad.

The following recipes are from Mark Stark, chef/owner of Willi's Seafood & Raw Bar in Healdsburg. The achiote paste is available at Mexican markets. The tangerine olive oil from Stonehouse can be found at the Santa Rosa Original Farmers Market on Saturdays.

Grilled Mahi Mahi Tacos wtih Cherry Tomatoes and Avocado Salsa

Makes 4 servings

For the fish:

1 pound Mahi Mahi fillet

2 bunches spring onions or scallions

4 tablespoons achiote paste

3 tablespoons tangerine olive oil

For cherry tomatoes:

1 pint sweet cherry tomatoes

1 Serrano chile

1 lime

1 tablespoon tangerine olive oil

- Salt and pepper

For avocado salsa:

2 ripe avocados

2 limes

-A few drops of hot sauce

? bunch cilantro

? cup sour cream

For tacos:

1 bulb fennel thinly shaved

2 cups baby arugula

1 tablespoon tangerine olive oil

- Salt and pepper

? cup crumbled mild feta or goat cheese

8 tortillas, hand made from La Tortilla Factory

For the fish: Portion the mahi mahi into 8 equal portions and place in a shallow dish. Trim some of the green tops of the onions, making them about 6 inches long, save the trimmings for the avocado salsa. Split the onions lengthwise one or two times depending on the size. Place the trimmed onions with the fish. Mix the tangerine oil with the achiote paste until smooth, coat the fish portions and the onions. Refrigerate and marinate for at least 1 hour and up to 8 hours.

For the tomatoes: Split all the cherry tomatoes and place in a bowl. Slice the Serrano chile into thin rings and add to the tomatoes. Squeeze the lime juice over the tomatos, add the oil and season. Refrigerate until needed.

For the avocado salsa: Split the avocados and scoop the pulp into a blender. Add the juice from the 2 limes, the cilantro, hot sauce to taste and the sour cream. Add the reserved green onion tops. Season with salt and blend until smooth,(use a little milk to thin if needed). Refrigerate until needed.

To serve: Fire up a hot grill. Remove the mahi mahi and onions from the marinade and season with a little salt and pepper.

Place on a hot grill and cook to the desired temperature (medium rare works for mahi mahi.) Grill the onions until lightly charred and wilted. Remove the fish and onions to a warm spot to rest.

While the fish is cooking, mix the shaved fennel with the arugula, olive oil, salt and pepper.

Place the tomatoes and salsa in serving bowls.

Place the tortillas on the warm grill to heat through, then wrap in a towel.

Spread a warm tortilla with the avocado salsa, then layer with the fennel salad, grilled mahi mahi and onions, tomatoes, then sprinkle with the feta cheese.

Strawberry Margaritas

Makes 4 servings

10 strawberries, halved

8 ounces reposado tequila (Hacienda Vieja or Cazadores)

2 ounces Patron Citronge or Orange Liqueur

4 ounces simple syrup (equal parts sugar and hot water)

2 whole limes, halved

2 ounces Grand Marnier

- Ice

? cup Kosher salt

4 lime wedges, split for garnish

In a large, 32-ounce glass pitcher, muddle the strawberries to a smooth consistency. Fill the pitcher with ice. Pour in tequila, orange liqueur, and simple syrup. Squeeze in the halved limes. Stir well to blend the ingriedients. Use a wedge of lime to wet the rims of four 8-ounce glasses. Place the salt on a small saucer or plate and dip the rim of the glasses in to coat with salt. Pour glasses three-quarters full with margarita and float Grand Marnier on top. Garnish each glass with a lime wedge. You can substitute strawberries with kiwis or watermelon, in season.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com

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