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.
Thai Fried Oysters by P.J. Stoops
Whether raw or roasted, grilled or baked, laid in po'boys or swimming in stews and gumbo, the oyster is omnipresent in the Gulf states. According to the Gulf Oyster Industry Council, the area produces more than 500 million pounds of in-shell oysters each year.
Stoops, who especially likes Gulf oysters early in the season, when cool weather makes them fat and sweet, suggests turning them into the centerpiece of Hoy Tod, a Thai-style omelet. "In Thailand, it's cooked on a large surface similar to a pancake griddle," says Stoops. "At home, I generally use a cast-iron skillet." Don't try it with a wok; you need a flat cooking surface.
Thai Fried Oysters (Hoy Tod) (serves 4)
- 1/4 cup tempura flour
- 1 cup rice flour
- 1/4 corn starch
- 1-2 cups ice water
- thinly sliced green onion to taste
- salt and pepper to taste
- equal parts Thai hot chili sauce and Thai sweet chili sauce
- about 1 cup shucked oysters, drained (this amount may be altered according to taste)
- 1 egg, beaten
- handful of bean sprouts
For the base, mix dry ingredients together well. Add enough water to form a thin batter. The batter should approximate a thin tempura batter. (Don't worry if it's not exactly right; the dish is forgiving.) Add scallions, then oysters. Heat the griddle or skillet on just over medium heat. Add enough oil to coat well. More oil will result in a crispier product obviously, but less oil is perfectly acceptable. When the pan is hot, pour in the batter. It'll start cooking more or less like a pancake. After a few seconds, drizzle in the beaten egg, and stir things up a bit to distribute. Add the bean sprouts, continue cooking until the bottom gets crispy. Flip it over. It's OK if it breaks into a couple of pieces. After the other side crisps, break up the omelet as you would hashbrowns. Serve garnished with cilantro. Sauce in a separate bowl.
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