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.
How to Cook Your Fish
Even a thick piece of fish cooks in seven or eight minutes, so have everything else on the table and ready to serve before you put the fish in the pan. All your sauces, all your garnishes, all your side dishes, your bread, your lemons, your silverware.
The most common mistake with seafood is overcooking it. "The difference between moist and juicy and dried out is about two minutes," says Flynn. If it's a whole fish, Prewitt touches its head just behind the neck. If the flesh gives way, it's ready. Stoops inserts a knife into the thickest part of the fillet until he hits bone, then rotates the knife a quarter-turn. If the meat comes off the bone, you're there.
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