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.
Redfish "on the Halfshell"
"Seafood is something that is best left alone," says Currence. "More than any other protein, it doesn't need help." Instead of focusing on the purity of the fish, rookies too often overwhelm it with flavors that mask the natural flavor. In the summer, Currence takes Louisiana redfish, a robust game fish with giant scales, pastes its skin with worchestershire, salt, and pepper – and not much else – and cooks it on a wood fire. He calls it redfish "on the halfshell," because when it cooks, the skin tightens and curls up around the flesh just a little, giving the appearance of the shape of an oyster shell. "It's an extremely rustic South Louisiana presentation and I like to serve it simply as such," says Currence. "When it gets overthought, it gets diminished."
Redfish "on the Halfshell" (serves 10)
- whole redfish (10 to 14 lbs); if unavailable, try grouper
- 1/2 lb melted butter
- 1 1/2 tbsp lemon zest
- 3 tbsp lemon juice
- 4 tbsp chopped parsley
- 5 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 1/2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
- 2 tbsp minced shallot
- 3/4 tbsp minced garlic clove
- 2 tbsp white wine
- 2 tsp Tabasco
- salt as needed
- freshly ground black pepper as needed
- non-stick spray or oil as needed
Start a wood fire under a metal grate, until embers are glowing and grate is very hot. Filet redfish, leaving skin intact and scales on. Blend butter with remainder of ingredients. Brush on flesh side of redfish and season liberally with salt and pepper. Spray grates with non-stick spray and place fillets on hottest area, skin side down. Brush generously with marinade. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Flip and cook 5 more minutes. Flip again, brush with marinade until fish is cooked through. Just before serving, brush with additional marinade and garnish with lemon wedges, flatleaf parsley sprigs, and pickled sweet onion.
Credit: Getty Images