Tenney Flynn, the chef-owner of GW Fins in New Orleans, recently got into a heated debate about America's best seafood cities with Tom Colicchio, the founder New York's Gramercy Tavern, which has achieved fame in part on the strength of its Sea Bass and Arctic Char. In no time, Flynn went for the jugular, pointing out that northeastern fisheries haul in a comparatively limited number of species. "Once you get past scallops and lobsters, what else have you got?" he asked Colicchio. "Just five kinds of fish. We've got five kinds of tuna, five kinds of snapper, five kinds of grouper."
The Gulf of Mexico, which is connected to the Atlantic through the surprisingly narrow Florida Straits and Yucatan Channel, is the ninth-largest body of water in the world and its mild waters, which engulf reefs, sandy shallows, and deep trenches, are home to some 1,447 species of fish. "The Gulf is kind of tropical and kind of temperate," says P.J. Stoops, a Houston-based fishmonger and chef. "It's a weird mix of everything." The same can be said of the local seafood.
The people that live along the gulf's northern edge have spent the better part of the last 300 years learning to cook up whatever they can net or hook and the diversity of recipes reflects the diversity of the fish. Even if the closest you get to the Gulf is your grocery store's frozen fish counter, there is much to be learned from the wisdom of people who prowl the area's piers. That's why we asked Flynn, Stoops, John Currence (City Grocery, Oxford, Mississippi) and Ryan Prewitt (Pêche, New Orleans), for tips and recipes straight from the Gulf.
Butter-Poached Shrimp and Creamy Hoppin' John by John Currence
"People just throw shrimp on the grill and think that once they turn pink they're done," says John Currence, a former deckhand on a Gulf tugboat – and more recently, the 2009 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef South for his work at City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi. "Instead they turn mealy and nasty. A proper shrimp should snap in your mouth like a hot dog." The best shrimp, to hear Currence tell it, is almost undercooked, wherein the carryover heat finishes cooking the protein. He loves to poach shrimp slowly in butter and serve them atop a bacony, buttery Hoppin' John with pigeon peas. "This one is all about simple and earthy flavors," says Currence.
Butter-Poached Shrimp and Creamy Hoppin' John (serves 6)
For Hoppin' John:
- 3 cups cooked white rice
- 1 1/2 cups cooked pigeon peas (field peas or black eyed peas)
- 2 tbsp clarified butter
- 1 tbsp bacon fat
- 1/2 cup minced shallot
- 1/2 cup diced carrot
- 1/2 cup diced celery
- 1 tbsp minced garlic
- 1 tsp red pepper flakes
- 2 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
- 1/2 cup chicken stock
- 4 tbsp cold cubed butter
- salt and black pepper to taste
For the shrimp:
- 24 16-20 ct peeled, butterflied Gulf brown shrimp
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1 1/2 cups clarified butter
- 2 tsp Creole seasoning blend
In a medium sauté pan, heat clarified butter and bacon fat over medium heat until the surface shimmers. Add the garlic, shallot, carrot, and celery, and sauté until carrot is tender. Stir in the bacon, peas, rice, red pepper flakes, and thyme; combine well. Add the stock and bring to a simmer, stirring. When the stock is almost fully absorbed (it should take about 3-4 minutes), remove the pan from heat and stir in cold butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Combine the shrimp with salt and pepper in a bowl and put it in the refrigerator for one hour. Warm butter in a medium sauté pan over low heat for 2-3 minutes. Split the shrimp into two batches. Add the first batch to the butter and turn heat to medium. Stir and turn the shrimp constantly and watch for them to begin to turn opaque, until the center of the cut where the shrimp have been deveined turns milky white. Remove from the pan, place in a stainless bowl and toss with half of the Creole seasoning. Repeat with the second half of the shrimp. Spoon Hoppin' John into small bowls and top with shrimp, chopped parsley, and a spritz of lemon.
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