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.
Pla Pao (Grilled Whole Fish Stuffed with Herbs) by P.J. Stoops
P.J. Stoops built up a reputation as fishmonger to many of Houston's best restaurants (Reef, Underbelly) by using the bounty of Gulf seafood to get people to expand their horizons beyond the usual suspects. "It's all about contextualizing things," says Stoops, who is opening a Northern Thai restaurant called Foreign Correspondents in Houston this fall. "If something is brought to people as weird, they don't want to eat like that. I learned to take some things that seem strange and demystify them."
There is no fish he will not grill whole in the Thai style (pla pao) with herbs stuffed into the cavity – sheepshead, sand trout, scorpionfish, porgy, any small white-fleshed fish. Try this loose recipe with whatever whole fish looks best at your market and whatever herbs and citrus you like best – and serve it whole, skin on. Says Stoops: "There's no cleaning, no stress. And if you mess it up, it's still going to be good."
Pla Pao (Grilled Whole Fish) (serves as many as you want, as long as you get a big enough fish)
- 1 whole fish, 1-3 lbs, gutted and gilled. (Do not scale the fish. If you want to be fancy, cut off the fins.)
- a little less than a box of relatively coarse salt
- herbs, citrus, and garlic (as much or as little as you want)
- small amount of good olive oil (or any kind of oil. You just need some liquid fat.)
- lime juice
- Thai fish sauce
- sliced Thai chilies
- minced garlic
- cilantro leaves
(All of this will go in a food processor. Add as much of each ingredient as you want until you like the way it tastes. Some like a very sweet sauce; others go spicier. There is no right or wrong here. It's your sauce, you're eating it.)
Get a good amount of hot coals ready in your grill, positioning them so that the fish will be no more than 10 inches from the coals. Chop, slice, or tear the herbs and aromatics. Rub the entire outside of the fish with the oil. Stuff the gut and gill cavities with the aromatics. Use more than you think you should. Pour the salt in a casserole dish, and heavily dredge the fish. Press the salt onto the fish, and try to get as much to stick as possible. There is no way you can put too much salt on, so go crazy. Carefully put the fish on the grill. The hotter the fire, the better. Cook about 15 minutes, then flip. (Cooking times will vary greatly. The time given is for a 1-2 pound fish.) While it's a shame to overcook a grilled fish, it is certainly not the end of the world. Serve the whole fish as is, with sauce in a separate bowl. Eat with some good rice.
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