Recipe Spotlight

Grill Jamaica’s Stuffed, Spice-Rubbed Snapper All Summer Long

Whole snapper—stuffed with highly seasoned greens, crimped in foil, and sizzled over the fire—isn’t just festive. It’s practical summertime entertaining.

Published June 5, 2023.

When I was a child, my father would host lymes on our rooftop every couple Friday nights. The vibe of these kickbacks was, by definition, low key, our house in Montego Bay filled with pulsating reggae music and the raucous laughter of my dad’s friends. But the food was a real production. There’d be a man frying festival, the aroma of sweetened cornmeal dough wafting through the air. Another would be seasoning pan chicken, and someone would be stationed up on the roof grilling foil-wrapped fish.

Maybe because it was my job to shuttle the fish parcels from the kitchen up to the grill, I considered this the standout dish of the night: whole snapper rubbed with a fragrant spice paste; stuffed with chopped, highly seasoned callaloo and okra; and sealed in a foil pouch. I’d weave myself and the fish packets through throngs of adults, who were busy balancing conversation with rum and Styrofoam cups of mannish wata (goat belly soup), and wait as the snapper sizzled over a hot fire. Its aroma was succulent and spicy, but most of all I relished the novelty of opening the package and seeing the whole fish with its distinctive eyes. They were what I’d pluck out to eat first.

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Lyming is a Way of Life in the Caribbean

Laid-back hangouts are such a hallmark of Caribbean culture that islanders have a specific term for them: lymes. Not to be confused with a party (or a category of citrus), lymes, or limes, are social gatherings where the vibe is chill, the food and drinks are flowing, and there’s no agenda other than casual conversation or maybe a game. (The term might derive from “limey,” slang for a British person that dates back to when England colonized Caribbean island nations.) The point is to spend time in the company of others, anywhere—be it one other person or a big group, in someone’s backyard, at a beach, or on a street corner. 

Years later, I started preparing the dish myself and realized how smart my dad had been to include it on his lyme menu. Grilling fish in foil, the Jamaican equivalent of en papillote, is clever and tidy: The skin browns while the flesh stays moist, there’s no risk of sticking or that the fish will fall apart when flipped, and cleanup is a cinch. The fish can be assembled a day ahead, and there’s also something festive about each diner getting their own packet, especially when you peel back the foil and the fragrance and warmth of the spices mixes with that clean, ocean-y aroma.

Inside and Out

Grilling food in foil delivers concentrated flavor, but not the kind that’s associated with live-fire cooking, since no juices or fat drip onto the flames and vaporize. Because of that, and because snapper is relatively mild, it’s important to deeply season it inside and out. 

First, I apply a savory-sweet rub made from loads of minced scallions and garlic, onion powder, brown sugar, black and cayenne peppers, and a handful of warm spices. To help it seep into the flesh, I slash the skin on both sides of each snapper and then rub each fish inside and out with a little cane vinegar—a traditional step that helps rid raw seafood of any fishy aroma—followed by the scallion-spice mixture, massaging it into the crevices. 

How to Stuff and Wrap Whole Snapper

1. Make three ¼-inch-deep slashes about 1 inch apart along both sides of each fish.

2. Rub fish inside and out with vinegar. Massage one-quarter of scallion-spice mixture into skin, slashes, and cavity of fish.

3. Open cavity and fill with one‑quarter of stuffing.

4. Lay stuffed fish flat in center of each piece of foil. Bring long edges of foil together above fish and crimp to seal tightly.

Then comes the stuffing. It spotlights callaloo, the dark leafy stalks also known as green amaranth that are traditionally chopped and pan‑steamed with aromatic vegetables, Scotch bonnet chiles, and herbs and served as part of a standard Jamaican breakfast. To turn it into a stuffing for fish, Jamaican cooks often bulk up the greens with chopped okra; it gives the mix some grassiness as well as body and silkiness when its polysaccharides dissolve, helping the stuffing tighten up into a more cohesive mix that’s easy to pack into the snapper’s cavity.

In my recipe, I gave the stuffing an extra jolt of seasoning by adding grated ginger to the scallions, garlic, fresh thyme, and Scotch bonnet chiles I was sautéing in butter. A few minutes later, I stirred in the okra followed by the callaloo, and when the vegetables had softened slightly, I seasoned the stuffing with salt and pepper as well as a couple tablespoons of cilantro to give it some buoyancy.

Temping Foil-Wrapped Fish

Here’s a way to test for doneness (140 degrees) without opening the packets: Before cooking, mark an “X” on the outside of the foil where the fish is the thickest with a permanent marker. Insert an instant-read thermometer through the “X” into the fish. 

That’s a Wrap

Before wrapping the stuffed fish in foil (coated with nonstick spray to keep it slick), I topped each one with a couple pats of butter that would not only add richness but also baste the fish during cooking, keeping it moist and encouraging the skin to brown. Then, when the fire was good and hot, I placed each parcel on the fire and let them sizzle for about 8 minutes. When it was time to flip, I grabbed two thin spatulas and gently nudged the packets onto their cool sides to cook until the thickest part of the flesh hit 140 degrees.

Five minutes later, I pulled apart the foil, slid the fish onto a plate, and squeezed lime all over it for a fresh burst of acidity. The snapper’s bright, oceanic flavor played so nicely with the fragrant spices; vivid quartet of ginger, garlic, scallion, and Scotch bonnet; and earthy, grassy, aromatic stuffing. My kind of hangout food.

Spice-rubbed, stuffed, foil-wrapped snapper is both festive and practical. The stuffing can be cooked, and the foil parcels assembled, in advance; the fish stays moist and won’t stick to the grill; and cleanup is easy. 

Earthy, Nutty Callaloo

In Jamaica, “callaloo” is the word for both green leaf amaranth and the aromatic sauté that features it. The plant, which stars in Jamaican Grilled Stuffed Red Snapper (page 9), has pointy oval leaves that taste earthy, nutty, and vibrant, similar to spinach but heartier. Its stalks can be eaten along with the greens provided they’re trimmed and stripped of their fibrous membrane. At Caribbean markets and farmers’ markets, the greens might be sold as “callaloo,” “green leaf amaranth,” or “amaranth.” –E.B. and D.R.

Preparing Callaloo

1. Wash callaloo well. Trim off woody base of stalk. Remove leaves and tender stems from stalks, set stalks aside.

2. Stack leaves and tender stems and cut crosswise into ½-inch pieces.

3. Slip paring knife under skin at stalk base. Hold skin against blade with thumb and peel back.

4. Cut stalks into ½-inch pieces.


Jamaican Grilled Stuffed Red Snapper

Whole snapper—stuffed with highly seasoned greens, crimped in foil, and sizzled over the fire—isn't just festive. It's practical summertime entertaining.
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