The Fresh That Binds
chokingxl, 2010, HAAP Media
It’s interesting how every part of the country has some ingredient or cuisine that defines the area to natives and visitors alike.
Who doesn’t take advantage of the heritage of New York City with a great treat from a delicatessen? And if that is not of great interest, the pizzas in Manhattan and Brooklyn are better than any similar pizza coming from Italy.
Throughout the Midwest, beef is the local ingredient of choice. But there is also the hearty cuisine of Eastern Europe, Germany and Poland. Along the southern part of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, cuisine originally centered in Mexico is stylized. California is the land of great vegetables, like avocadoes.
And along America’s Third Coast, which is comprised of the states lining the Gulf of Mexico, we revel in our fresh seafood of amazing variety. That never-wrong fish answer to the question, “What’s for dinner?” is prepared in a wide variety of ways, demonstrating not just our amalgam of cultural heritages but also a credit to our creativity with ingredients that lived in water.
Likely the most popular way to prepare our catch is fried. Gulf Coasters are never far from their fryer or big black iron skillet and the whole cooking process is faster than any microwave could ever get the task accomplished. More importantly, it tastes better. Significantly better with just a few drops of fresh oil or butter.
Then we also resort to broiling, steaming, and baking in a wide range of sauces from butter and garlic to light tomato with peppers and chives. Courtbouillon done in South Louisiana awakens the taste buds, and then there’s Meunier in Alabama which brings out and never masks the delicate flavors of the main ingredient, the fish.
As we enter the cooler time of year, what types of fish are we all enjoying in common with our neighbors from Lake Charles to Tallahassee? Among the most popular are shrimp, oysters, redfish and flounder.
Every state declares a season for different types of shrimp, brown and white. Shrimp bring a lot to any table. They are abundant all along the Gulf Coast. They are tasty and meaty. They are an excellent source of protein. And they are actually easy to prepare. And most of the time, they are actually quite a grand bargain in price.
At the simplest level, a light boil then cooling them down opens up amazing possibilities for uses from salads to “cocktails,” where the shrimp are just about the only ingredient besides a sauce of the diner’s choice.
Shrimp are also important to gumbo and jambalaya and are incorporated into a wide array of ethnic cuisines from Chinese to Japanese, French to Caribbean. Shrimp can be used to add bulk to a dish, and, ironically, they are considered a light ingredient. Quite a wide range for such a little item.
Likely no seafood item causes such a multitude of responses as oysters. Some folks crave the salty, kiss-of-the-sea qualities, and will go out of their way to enjoy this delicacy. While other diners are vehemently opposed to oysters in any form, and in any dish. These folks usually don’t like the consistency of this also widely available seafood, nor does the taste overcome the mouth-feel for a large group of usually non-picky eaters.
Oysters come from the shorelines along the Gulf Coast, not in deep water, and they can be farmed but mostly, particularly in Louisiana and Texas, they are wild-caught. Because of the nature of how an oyster lives, with little or no mobility, this seafood item is more sensitive to its environment and reflective of the conditions under which it was born and grew. Changes in the water’s salinity or temperature, or the introduction of pollutants can all severely damage even kill oyster beds.
When oysters are brought to the surface, immediate refrigeration is essential, and while oysters are long-living creatures, it is best to remove them from their shell should product shelf-life be an important consideration. If oysters on the half-shell are your cup of tea, get into that delicacy no more than the next day or so after catch. The freshness of the oyster is part of the beauty of the presentation.
Here again, oysters are versatile ingredients in an amazing range of dishes. Gumbos, stews, dressing and stuffing for poultry, sauces for rice, and, of course, fried are just a few of the usual uses for oysters. Oysters pair amazingly well with luxury items like caviar and Champagne.
The amazing demand for blackened seasoning on the redfish has led to states’ managing the redfish stock. Thanks almost single-handedly to Chef Paul Prudhomme, who created Blackened Redfish, the redfish could not replenish their population as fast we were eating it. Today, thanks to intelligent management, redfish are once again common and oh-so-good.
As fish go, redfish are a pretty good looking species, and the name is applied, in the US, mostly to red snapper and red drum. Either way, the firm, white, sweet meat almost prepares itself. Light sautéing or pan frying, then topped with a lemon butter and light garlic sauce, maybe with a topping of crabmeat, and you have some dandy eating ahead. There are a number of seasoning mixes that make blackening the fish easy and with results that don’t mask the fine flavor of the main ingredient.
Redfish are native in the Gulf of Mexico as well as other tropical and semi-tropical waters. That’s why many of our guests from up north are so mesmerized with this fish. They can’t get it at home without paying a dear price to enjoy what we have and likely take for granted.
Bottom dwellers in the Gulf, these flat, odd-looking fish arrive at the surface looking like there is not much to be done with them as far as cuisine goes. But that is an erroneous thought.
Flounder are a fine delicacy, again, easy to prepare in a pan with some butter. Very light cooking, not for any long period of time, and then garnish on the plate. Flounder don’t even require filleting or removing the skin before serving. Easy.
And oh so tasty. The sweet, white and firm meat stands on its own, without additives, cooking tricks, spices or sauces. Running a fork between the bones brings chunks of delicate meat away from the fish and into your mouth. Try a glass of sauvignon blanc wine alongside the flounder, with some non-obtrusive green vegetables, like beans lightly cooked in butter and lightly salted, well, you are on your way to a wonderful dining experience.
We are fortunate to live so close to a major resource of food items from the sea. Our local fish and the way we prepare them are the topics of conversations all over the world. Visitors enjoy the dining experience, then go home and never stop thinking about, to them, unique dinners which we enjoy every day.
Now go catch some dinner, literally.