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.
Parmesan Crusted Flounder by Tenney Flynn
Many people find themselves stuck on salmon – or another go-to fish that works with a preparation method you've long learned. Mix it up. "You can fall in love with a process or a method of cooking or side ingredients, but if the recipe says halibut, that shouldn't always be your choice," says Flynn. "Ask your fishmonger: What's the best thing you got today? Then be flexible enough that you base your recipe on the best thing in the case."
Take the Parmesan crusted fish meunière, a Flynn signature dish, that calls for flounder. But if your fish guy won't stop yapping about the amazing grouper or snapper he just got, grab it and plug it into this recipe. The one thing you cannot substitute for is a cast-iron skillet, which will brown the fish to perfection. "If you use a Teflon grill, the cheese sticks to the griddle instead of the fish," Flynn says. "I don't know why."
Parmesan Crusted Flounder Meunière (serves 6)
- 2 lbs skinless, boneless flounder filets
- 16 trimmed asparagus spears
- 2 tbsp drained capers
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1 tbsp chopped parsley
- 1/2 lb Louisiana jumbo lump crabmeat
- 2 tbsp butter
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- vegetable oil spray
- salt and pepper
- 2 cast iron skillets
Fry the capers in 2 tablespoons of olive oil on medium high heat until crispy. (They are like buds, so they're done when they're open.) Drain well. Cook the asparagus in salted boiling water for 3 minutes and shock in iced water. Season the filets lightly with salt and pepper. Spray filets liberally with vegetable spray and dredge liberally in grated Parmesan. Preheat 2 large cast iron skillets. Add a tablespoon each of oil and butter. Place the flounder, cheese side down, in the skillets. Cook on medium heat for 3 minutes and – very important – don't turn until a golden brown crust forms. Use a spatula to lift edge to check if brown. Turn and continue cooking for an additional 3 minutes. Transfer to 2 pie tins or baking sheet and put it in a 250-degree oven. Drain the oil from the skillet and place it back on the fire on medium-to-high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of butter. Stir until butter browns and foams. (Don't let it burn.) Add the parsley and crabmeat and remove from heat. Heat asparagus and divide it onto four plates. Place the flounder on top of the asparagus spears, sprinkle with the fried capers, and spoon the brown butter over the fish.
Credit: Sarah Essex