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.
Crawfish Gratin by Ryan Prewitt
We asked Prewitt: If he could eat only one sea creature for the rest of his life . . . and before we were even done with the question, he chose crawfish. "They're rich and fatty and tender and really expressive," he says. "When they're cooked right, the flavor and texture are phenomenal."
Also known as crayfish, crawdads, or mudbugs, these shellfish are basically pocket lobsters – smaller and cheaper freshwater versions of their more treasured saltwater uncles. These days, Prewitt takes crawfish tails and bakes them in a cheesy, buttery gratin. "We needed a good rich seafood dish at Pêche that we could bake," says Prewitt. "And crawfish fit the bill."
Crawfish Gratin (serves 6-8 as a side)
For the eggplant béchamel:
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1 onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tbsp flour
- 2 cups milk
- 2 cups chicken stock (or more milk)
- 2 eggplants, peeled, diced and roasted with olive oil, salt, and pepper
- 2 tbsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1/4 tsp cayenne
- 2 tsp Louisiana hot sauce
- 2 tsp lemon juice
- 1 cup breadcrumbs
- 2 tbsp melted butter
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 1 oz grated Parmesan
- 1 lb crawfish tails, with all the fat and juice
- 3-4 large eggplants, cut into a large dice (you need about 10 cups) and roasted until completely cooked
- eggplant béchamel
- 6 oz grated fontina
- 6 oz grated Parmesan
- 1 bunch sliced green onions
Melt the butter in a medium heavy-bottomed pot. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft. Add the flour and stir to incorporate. Cook for about 5 minutes. Add the milk, chicken stock, and all of the seasonings. Cook, stirring frequently until mixture begins to thicken. Cook for about 10 minutes, then add the eggplant and cook for another 10 minutes. Purée the entire mixture and adjust seasoning as necessary. If the mixture seems too thick, add a little milk to thin it out. Pour into 8-inch by 12-inch casserole dish. Heat oven to 425. Combine all breadcrumb ingredients. Top with breadcrumbs. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the top is browned and bubbling. Serve.
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