Fourth of July grill! Halibut with Nectarine-Papaya Salsa

Try something different for the Fourth of July!–How about grilled fish with a grilled-fruit salsa? This is a flexible, relatively simple dinner with lots of tasty variations!

Here’s where we are going: grilled fillet of halibut on cilantro pesto, with grilled nectarine-papaya salsa and a salad of field greens and shredded red pepper with honey-lime dressing. I just came up with these recipes and made this dinner tonight! (Practicing up for the Fourth.) Let’s take it step by step–I’m a beginner, so I’ll suggest a couple of variations along the way in case you don’t like some of the ingredients, but I hope you’ll suggest some other ways to go!

Shopping list

This is a pretty comprehensive list of ingredients; note that you divide up these quantities to use in the different components of the dinner.

  • 1 bunch cilantro (divided) (or if you don’t like cilantro, I think you could go with Thai basil, or regular basil)
  • 1 C nice olive oil, or a bit more (divided)
  • up to 4 cloves garlic, minced (divided)
  • about 2 tsp of salt (ideally, kosher) (divided)
  • 3 to 4 limes, depending on size and juiciness (divided)
  • 1-1/2 (one and a half) tsp honey
  • 1/8 tsp fish sauce or to taste (optional)
  • dash of cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 lb. salad greens (I used a mix of field greens, some from my garden)–enough for four people
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1/4 red onion, medium-diced (or other onion, but the red is pretty)
  • 2 red jalapenos (ditto)
  • 1 C cherry tomatoes (a mix of colors is nice)
  • 4 ripe nectarines (or peaches)
  • 1 Mexican OR 2 Hawaiian papayas (the Mexican ones are bigger) (or cantaloupe)
  • Canola oil or similar “hot” oil for prepping the grill
  • Halibut fillet (about 1/4 lb. per person) (or other mild white fish)

Let’s take the components one by one, in what seems to me the best order (for flavor development and stress reduction, as well as having the one component that should be hot, the fish, actually come off the grill at the right moment and not be sitting on the counter over-cooking while you frantically mince cilantro.)

Cilantro pesto

You can make the pesto ahead (I make it every time one of my cilantro plants is about to bolt, which is about every 15 minutes or so!). It is very simple! Pinch off the leaves of a cilantro plant (or small bunch from the store) and put them in a Cuisinart bowl (I have a “mini-prep plus” that is great for small jobs like this). Add a chopped clove of garlic and a pinch of salt. Have on hand about a half-cup or more of nice olive oil; drizzle it into the mixture as you chop it up. (The cover of the Cuisinart has a little hole in it for this purpose.) I like a fairly coarse, thick pesto; if you want it to be thinner, you can always add more oil. That’s it! Put it in the fridge if you’ll use it within say a week, or freeze it in an ice tray and store the cubes in a freezer bag in the freezer.

For this meal, you want enough to make a puddle on each plate below the piece of fish. The amount above should do for four.

Honey-lime salad dressing

A sweet-tart salad dressing seems like a natural to go with grilled fruit! You can also  make this ahead, and it’s nice to have around this time of year (I’m assuming that you live somewhere where “this time of year” means “sunny and warm”). Again, it’s simple! Combine these ingredients (this is at least enough to dress a salad for four; multiply for more people):

  • 1 T fresh lime juice
  • 1-1/2 (one and a half) tsp honey (I used a nice local raspberry honey)
  • 1/8 tsp fish sauce (or to taste) (optional, but gives it a nice base)
  • 1 minced small clove garlic
  • pinch of salt
  • dash of cayenne pepper (optional–but not to me!)

Whisk these ingredients together, then slowly whisk in (so that it makes a nice emulsion):

  • 3 T good olive oil

You could make this well ahead of time (even a day ahead); just re-whisk it before using.

Grilled nectarine-papaya salsa

I first ate papaya in Guatemala in 2005–for breakfast, like cantaloupe! It’s really good with lime juice, which gave me the idea for this salsa.

Prep the basic salsa ingredients

As far as I can tell, a salsa pretty much always has most of these ingredients: minced garlic, lime juice, cilantro (or another herb), diced onion, maybe diced tomato, and some kind of pepper, in addition to the starring ingredient. This one is no different!–Here’s what I did this time, for the supporting cast:

  • 2 minced cloves of garlic
  • 1/4 C lime juice
  • About 1/4 C coarsely chopped cilantro leaves
  • About 1/2 C medium dice of red onion (about 1/4 of a large onion)
  • 2 red jalapenos, cored and seeded, then shredded (or less, for less heat)
  • 1 C halved cherry tomatoes (I used a mix of yellow pear and cherry tomatoes)
  • Salt to taste

Gently toss all this stuff together.

Grill the fruit

For four people, get one Mexican papaya or two Hawaiian ones. Also get about four nectarines. Be sure to get ripe fruit!–The end result will be only as good as the fruit.

If you aren’t familiar with papaya, here’s a half-peeled Mexican one. (Be careful in peeling and slicing it; it will be a slippery devil!) It has seeds like a cantaloupe; cut it in half along the length of it and scoop them out. Then turn it cut side down and slice it into thick slices (at least one inch thick–you’ve got to be able to turn them on the grill without too many of them breaking apart).

If you hate papaya or don’t want to try it, use cantaloupe instead–it also grills really nicely!

Cut the nectarines in half around the stone, twist them off the stone (“unscrew” the halves), peel them, and slice them thickly (I get just about two slices per half). While you are at it, cut a lime in half and slice one or two thin pieces off each half. You can grill them briefly to make a nice garnish!

Oil your grill rack and get it VERY hot. (I have a gas grill; I let it get up to 500 degrees.) Open it and quickly put down your slices of papaya, nectarine, and lime. (I use two small spatulas to handle the pieces so I can work fast and very few go down in flames.) I leave the top up because I don’t really want the fruit to cook; I just want to get some char on it. I leave them there for about two minutes, then turn them for another two minutes. (Sometimes I lower the hood briefly if the grill is cooling too much.) But don’t depend on time; look at them and make sure they are getting some char before you take them off. I take off the lime slices much more quickly than the other fruit–just as soon as they pick up some charred color.

Then I rush the plate into the house and put it in the fridge–I don’t want the slices to cook, just pick up some color and flavor from the grill.

I use the brush to clean the grill, but leave it on–we’ll need it for the fish.

Now I have a glass of wine.

Pull everything together

Get the grilled fruit out of the fridge and carefully dice it so that you have evenly sized pieces with good color. Gently fold it into the basic salsa (I hardly stir it!–just place the pieces so that I can spoon a good cross-section of the mixture onto each piece of fish). Let that sit at room temperature while you do the rest of the prep.

Get out your salad dressing and cilantro pesto and also let them sit at room temperature. Re-whisk the dressing if it needs it.

Wash and dry your salad greens and tear into bite-size pieces. Core your red pepper, trim out the white edges and discard all the seeds, and shred it into very thin slices. Mix the greens and red pepper pieces.

Grill the fish

Oil your grill again and get it moderately hot (I shoot for around 400 degrees to start).

Portion your halibut fillets (or whatever mild white fish you prefer). Have at least a quarter-pound piece per person. Rub the fish with a small amount of olive oil and dust the pieces with salt and pepper.

Put them on the grill and close the cover. For a piece of fish about one inch thick at the thickest point, cook it one one side for about five to six minutes, then turn it over and cook for another say four minutes. You want it to begin to flake but be a little translucent in the middle–it will continue to cook for a bit after you take it off the fire.


While the fish is grilling, toss the salad with the salad dressing.

On each plate, make a “puddle” of cilantro pesto.

When the fish is done, put one piece on each plate on top of the cilantro pesto. Spoon some of the salsa over the fish, and add a lime slice or two.

Add a helping of dressed salad. Here we are! Serve with a piece of good crusty bread; have a dessert if you care to. I have to tell you, this was a very fresh-tasting, pleasant meal!

If you try this recipe, please comment on how it went! This is my first attempt to actually write up what I do and call it a “recipe,” and I’d really like to get your feedback.