Easing into grilling season
Memorial Day, originally created almost a century and a half ago to honor the soldiers who gave their lives in the Civil War, has become a national institution -- a time not only to pay our respects to those lost in all our wars, but also to gather with our families, friends, and communities to enjoy the simple pleasures of life in America.

The holiday was first held at this time of year because, by late May, flowers are in bloom everywhere to decorate the graves of the fallen. And the improving weather also makes the three-day weekend -- Congress officially declared Memorial Day the last Monday in May starting in 1971 -- a good way to anticipate summer with picnics and cookouts. That's why so many people now also consider Memorial Day the start of the grilling season, even though summer is still three weeks away.

Memorial Day grilling presents its own special challenges. The weather can still be variable, even where I live in Southern California, so you don't necessarily want to count on spending lots of time at the grill. That's why I like to ease into grilling season with recipes that can be prepared at least partially in the kitchen. And, since some people don't yet consider themselves "swimsuit-ready" and may be watching what they eat, it's not necessarily an ideal time to serve up robust food from the grill. So, apart from the simple fact that I like seafood and try to eat healthful foods, I often choose to grill fish for Memorial Day.

My recipe for Grilled Halibut with Tomatoes and Sweet Peppers meets both of those criteria. Most of its very simple cooking takes place in the kitchen where, while the grill heats up, you gently simmer a sauce of diced tomatoes, red bell peppers, garlic, onion, fresh herbs, and saffron: a mixture bursting with the bright, fresh flavors of the approaching season. Then, at the last minute, you very quickly grill fresh halibut fillets, which take just minutes to cook to perfect doneness, seared a nice, deep golden-brown on the outside and still moist within. (Feel free to substitute any other fresh fish you prefer.) Spoon the sauce onto a platter or plates, place the fish on top, garnish with a few basil leaves, and you're ready to eat.

This recipe offers one extra bonus appropriate to late springtime, too. Should the weather where you live turn cold or wet this coming weekend, you can just as easily cook the fish on an indoor grill, in a ridged stovetop grill pan, in a nonstick sauté pan, or under the broiler. No matter how you prepare it, the results will really make you feel like summer is just around the corner.

GRILLED HALIBUT WITH TOMATOES AND SWEET PEPPERS

Serves 4 to 6

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, minced

4 garlic cloves, minced

Pinch red pepper flakes

1 pound organic tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced

1 organic red bell pepper, cored, stemmed, seeded, deveined, and diced

Pinch saffron threads

Pinch chopped fresh thyme leaves

Pinch chopped fresh basil leaves, plus whole leaves for garnish

1/2 cup dry white wine

Salt

Freshly ground white pepper

2 pounds fresh halibut fillet, cut into 4 or 6 equal portions

Preheat the grill.

Meanwhile, in a heavy saute pan, heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and pepper flakes and saute, stirring, frequently, until they begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, bell pepper, saffron, thyme, basil, and wine. Continue cooking over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thick, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and keep warm.

When the grill is hot, brush the remaining olive oil all over the halibut and season lightly on both sides with salt and pepper. Grill the fish until nicely seared but still moist in the center, 2-1/2 to 3 minutes per side.

To serve, spoon the tomato-pepper mixture into the center of heated dinner plates or a serving platter. Place the grilled halibut fillets on top and garnish with basil leaves. Serve immediately.