Fish Friday: A cure for Fear of Fish

Those of you who have Fear of Fish, don’t be ashamed to admit it. Every chef and seafood expert I talked to when writing “Carolina Catch: Cooking North Carolina Fish and Shellfish from Mountains to Coast” said that people have it – you are not alone. But….it’s just a little fish. Follow the book’s tips on buying it and picking the flavor you like, things will go swimmingly. (I wrote a fish book, people, I have the right to make seafood puns and I won’t be shellfish about them.)

IMG_2270For this final Fish Friday, I offer this recipe from the book, a good one for the recovering fish-frightened. The sauce is easy to make, and gives some wiggle room by keeping the fish moist and insulating it from the oven’t heat.

Now, go fish! To learn more and find more recipes, take a look at the book. And the Moose is on the loose! Visit Events at debbiemoose.com. to find a cooking class or signing I’m doing near you.

Greek Baked Sea Trout (or sheepshead, grunt, flounder, snapper)

Makes 6 servings

2 cups cherry tomatoes

1/2 cup chopped white or yellow onion

2 medium cloves garlic, chopped

1/3 cup olive oil, plus more for the baking pan

1 tablespoon dried oregano or marjoram

1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

2 teaspoons capers or chopped black olives

2 large sea trout fillets (about 2 pounds)

Italian bread (optional)

Place the tomatoes in a food processor and pulse to chop coarsely. Do not puree.

Place 1/3 cup olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the tomatoes, onions and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes begin to give up their juice and the onions are soft. Add the oregano or marjoram, salt and pepper. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes or until the mixture thickens slightly. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley and capers or olives.  Taste and add salt if needed.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat the bottom of a baking dish with a little olive oil. Place the fish in the dish, skin side down, and spoon the sauce over the fish, making sure to cover it completely. Bake for about 20 minutes or until the fish flakes and is done.

Serve with Italian bread for sopping up the sauce, if desired.

Fish Friday: The fish, the whole fish and nothing but the fish

Decades ago, my husband purchased a whole smoked whitefish for breakfast. It was the first time I’d seen an entire fish in such close proximity, and first thing in the morning, too.

So I understand those with Fear of Fish, and even some experienced cooks, who shy away from cooking an entire fish. I had never cooked a whole fish until I was working on “Carolina Catch: Cooking North Carolina Fish and Shellfish from Mountains to Coast.” I knew I had to include something on cooking whole fish, and many people – from chefs to adventurous friends – had told me that it was easy and I’d love the results. Also, Thai and other Asian cuisines routinely cook whole fish in various ways, so it’s an important skill for exploring those styles of cooking.

I did it, and all I have to say is: I shouldn’t have waited so long. Neither should you. It was indeed easy and produced some of the most moist, flavorful fish I’ve ever eaten. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because chefs always say that meat cooked with the bone – bone-in chicken, for example, rather than boneless chicken breast – has much more flavor. And that’s true. Why shouldn’t it be true for fish as well?

Fish markets typically sell cleaned whole fish, which means anything inside that you don’t want has been conveniently removed for your cooking pleasure. Look for whole fish that appear moist, not dried out, and with firm flesh.

When you get the fish home, you can follow instructions in “Carolina Catch” for simple roasted whole fish stuffed with herbs and ginger. All the equipment you need is a baking sheet and oven. There’s also a recipe for Thai-style whole fried fish that uses a wok. Whole sea bass, snapper and flounder are good choices.

Carving the cooked fish for serving is easy. With a knife and spatula, the top filet will lift right off, then the bones can be pulled out of the lower half of the fish. I have detailed instructions in the “Best Basics” section of the book.

So, go whole fish! To learn more and find more recipes, take a look at the book. And the Moose is on the loose! Visit Events at debbiemoose.com to find a signing or cooking class I’m doing near you.

Fish Friday: Use summer’s best

We’re in the thick of summer now. Fresh corn, peppers and beautiful North Carolina shrimp. I combine them all whenever I have a chance – and sometimes throw in some okra, too.

Shrimp makes a great substitute for the smoked trout that I used in the original recipe in “Carolina Catch: Cooking North Carolina Fish and Shellfish from Mountains to Coast.”  In fact, most of the recipes in the book offer alternative seafood suggestions so that you can use whatever’s available at different times of year.

To learn more, and find more recipes, take a look at the book. And the Moose is on the loose! Visit Events at debbiemoose.com to find a signing or cooking class I’m doing near you.

Fresh Corn and Shrimp Fritters

From “Carolina Catch: Cooking North Carolina Fish and Shellfish from Mountains to Coast” by Debbie Moose

Makes 8-10 servings

2 cups fresh corn kernels

1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper

1/2 cup chopped green onion

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon chili powder

1/4 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and cut into small pieces

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Vegetable oil for frying

Place the corn, bell peppers, green onions, flour, chili powder, paprika, salt and shrimp in a large bowl. Toss to combine. Stir in the eggs.

Put enough oil in a frying pan to come about 1 inch up the sides. Heat over medium until the oil shimmers. (See frying tips in “Best Basics” in “Carolina Catch”) Use 2 large spoons to scoop out the batter into patties and place them in the hot oil. Lightly press each patty to flatten it. Cook the patties, turning once, until they are brown on both sides. Drain them on paper towels or on a cooling rack placed over a plate. Keep the cooked patties warm in an oven on low heat until all the patties are cooked.

Fish Friday: Get out the grill

smoked swordfish

smoked swordfish

It’s summertime and the smell of charcoal smoke again covers the land. (If you’re a gas griller, fine, but I am a charcoal girl to the core and the daughter of one, too.) Slide those burgers over and make room for fish – it’s easy to cook fish on the grill if you keep a few simple things in mind.

You can grill any kind of fish (whole or filleted), but if you’re just starting out, you may have better success by using thicker or steak-ier kinds of North Carolina-caught fish fillets. Try swordfish, mahi, drum, cobia, amberjack or yellowfin.

Place a slotted grill pan (the kind for grilling vegetables) on top of the grate to prevent losing the fish through the widely spaced grate. Get a nonstick pan, or spray it with nonstick spray before placing it on the grate to heat up.

To ensure against drying out and add flavor, give the fish a quick soak in a simple marinade before cooking. Citrus juices and olive oil are a nice combination. Let the fish marinate about 15 minutes, but not much longer – acids will “cook” the meat and make it rubbery after grilling.

Direct heat is fine, or if you’re uncertain, use indirect (it will take longer). Monitor the cooking, turning the fish only once, and use your trusty instant-read thermometer or a sharp knife to determine when the fish is done.

Keep things easy and summery by topping the cooked fish with a quick fruit salsa or sauce. You’ll find recipes for those in “Carolina Catch: Cooking North Carolina Fish and Shellfish from Mountains to Coast.”

By the way, smoking fish at home isn’t difficult, even if you don’t have a smoker. I have detailed instructions in “Carolina Catch.” To learn more, and find more recipes, take a look at the book. And the Moose is on the loose! Visit Events at debbiemoose.com to find a signing or cooking class I’m doing near you.

Fish Friday: Shrimp time!

With summer comes wild-caught North Carolina shrimp season, and since shrimp is by far the most popular seafood, I know y’all have been looking forward to it.

Many people don’t realize that fish and shellfish have seasons, just like fruits and vegetables do. Certain kinds are more prevalent at certain times of year, and I offer a guide to seafood seasonality in “Carolina Catch: Cooking North Carolina Fish and Shellfish from Mountains to Coast.” If you familiarize yourself with seasonality, you’ll get the best-tasting, freshest fish and shellfish, and maybe save a little money, because at the height of a season, prices may come down.

Great local shrimp don’t need much fuss and bother, I say. On a hot day, cooked shrimp tossed on a newspaper-covered table to peel and eat is perfect. Here’s how I boil shrimp: pour a beer into a large pot (and open one for myself), add water to cover the shrimp, toss in three or four slices of lemon, maybe a garlic clove, and generous shakes of a seafood seasoning (such as Old Bay). When the combination comes to a boil, add the shrimp and cook just three or four minutes, until they turn bright pink and give off their shrimpy perfume.

To learn more – and get more recipes – take a look at the book. And the Moose is on the loose! Visit Events at debbiemoose.com to find a signing or cooking class I’m doing near you!

Fish Friday: Cool summer appetizer

No heating up the kitchen to make this spread from “Carolina Catch,” which is great for summer parties.

Smoked Trout Cheese Spread

from “Carolina Catch: Cooking North Carolina Fish and Shellfish from Mountains to Coast” by Debbie Moose copyright 2018

Makes 10 to 12 servings

16 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

3/4 cup coarsely chopped smoked trout

1/4 cup coarsely chopped red onion

Black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons capers

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

Put the cream cheese, mayonnaise and smoked trout in the bowl of a food processor. Process until combined. Add the red onions, pepper and capers, and pulse a few times until they are just mixed in.

Scrape the mixture into a container and sprinkle with the parsley. Cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight. The spread can be made up to 2 days ahead. Serve with crackers.

To learn more – and get more recipes – take a look at the book. And the Moose is on the loose! Visit Events at debbiemoose.com to find a signing or cooking class I’m doing near you!

Fish Fridays: A grunt by any other name would taste as good

Flounder, snapper grouper – these are the perky cheerleaders of the fish world. Everybody loves them But give some love to less familiar fish, such as the grunt.

Maybe we should start by getting this fish a new name, because that’s a terrible one to hang on a delicious flaky, white fish. But as I learned working on “Carolina Catch: Cooking North Carolina Fish and Shellfish from Mountains to Coast” (UNC Press), there are a lot of good fish in the sea (and the ponds).

Less familiar kinds of North Carolina fish are just as good to cook and eat as what I call the Big Three (see above) and seeking them out lessens overfishing pressures on popular fish. Also, you’ll find new and delightful things to eat. In “Carolina Catch,” I offer information on substituting different kinds of fish in recipes, and how to find fish you might like based on what you currently enjoy. For example, if you want to substitute something for flounder, look for another thin and flaky fish (not a thick and steak-like one, such as mahi). An important piece of advice: Find a fishmonger who knows North Carolina fish and shellfish to guide you in selections.

Here are a few of my don’t-miss fish. Try them!

– Tilefish cooks up with a beautiful white color and tender, flaky texture. Its delicate, sweet flavor requires little more than a squeeze of lemon and a bit of butter. You’ll never look at flounder again.

– Sheepshead offers texture and flavor that stand up to being simmered or baked in sauces.

– Trout, whether farmed or wild-caught, can be used any way you’d cook snapper or flounder, and it’s especially tasty fried (although, what isn’t?)

Now, go fish!

To learn even more – and get recipes from appetizers to sides – take at a look at the book. And visit the Events list at debbiemoose.com to find a signing or cooking class I’m doing near you.

Inspiration and memory

A smart editor once told me: “If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.” That’s what I’m going to do today, from one of the best, Charlotte Observer food editor Kathleen Purvis. After reading her column today – which, as a food writer, I can say is absolutely true about the never-ending search for the new – I thought about how I recharge and what I would relive. Here are a few, with thanks to Kathi.

– The first time I ate a soft-shell crab, which was the beginning of a lifelong affair. It looked like the inspiration for a ’50s drive-in movie, “Invasion of the Giant Crunchy Spiders.” I had to be persuaded that ALL of the crustacean was edible in this state. Oh, the little legs, how crispy; the center, how moist…. It was truly a new thing.

– Driving around Normandy with The Hub. We armed ourselves with an extremely poor map, minimal French, a Swiss Army knife and a baguette from the corner baker, and set out from Bayeux for two things: cheese and Calvados, an apple brandy. We stopped at a roadside stand for the most sensually fragrant melon I’d ever experienced, then roamed, mostly lost, through the rolling hills that reminded me of Piedmont North Carolina, where I grew up. We found cheese and ate it with the knife while sitting on the trunk of the rental car, with the baguette and lovely melon.  We ended the day tasting Calvados and its aperitif sister, Pommeau.

– Walking through the backyard vegetable garden with my father when I was knee high, watching him pull two green onions from the red clay, brush them off on his pants leg, cut off the roots with a super-sharp pocket knife, and hand me one. We ate them on the spot, in the sun. Truly fresh vegetables don’t need a lot of messing with.

What’s your list?

Three flavors for spring

The fun and popular Savor the South series by the University of North Carolina Press usually brings out two books in the spring, but this year, there’s a threefer: “Gumbo” by Dale Curry, “Shrimp” by Jay Pierce and “Catfish” by Paul and Angela Knipple.

GUMBO Cover imageIf anyone knows gumbo, it’s Dale Curry, who was food editor for the New Orleans Times-Picayune for 20 years and lives in New Orleans. (Full disclosure: I have known Dale for years through the Association of Food Journalists, and I’m the author of two Savor the South cookbooks.)

I have made gumbo as best as a non-Louisianan can, but the book offers regional takes that I never imagined. Catfish Gumbo or Quail Gumbo, anyone? There is a roux-less gumbo for those who find making roux challenging, as I once did. Curry’s directions for making roux, an essential part of traditional gumbo, are simple but useful. To tell the truth, it’s one of those things that you just have to do a few times and you eventually get it, like riding a bicycle or following knitting directions. But believe Curry when she says do not use a burned roux.

The book includes recipes for some of gumbo’s relations, such as jambalaya – including a recipe for a slow-cooker jambalaya that I’m looking forward to trying out. This is a book of classics from another area of the South that is a good addition to the series.

SHRIMP Cover ImagePierce, author of “Shrimp,” recently became chef at ROCKSALT in Charlotte after years with Lucky 32 in Greensboro and Cary. (More full disclosure: I have met Pierce and welcomed him to the Savor the South sisterhood’s men’s auxiliary; he and Paul Knipple are the first men to enter the fold.) Whenever I encounter a chef-written cookbook, I get concerned that it will have miles-long directions involving hours of prep for those of us without a kitchen full of hired help. Not here. The recipes are creative and accessible, and the stories Pierce tells along with them make you feel like you’ve popped a beer and sat down next to a shrimp-loving buddy.

How to select quality shrimp and freeze it offers great information, as well as reassurance that frozen shrimp is OK, depending on where it’s from. He also clearly explains why buying American-caught shrimp is so important.

Soups, noodle dishes, pick-up goodies like Fire-Roasted Shrimp Tacos, rice dishes like Shrimp Risotto – there’s a lot of variety here. This is a great book to carry to the beach, or make you feel like you’re there.

CATFISH Cover ImageCatfish is a staple in the Deep South, but I wondered how the Knipples, experienced food writers who live in Memphis, would handle an entire book on the ingredient.

On the surface, catfish seems limited to crispy fried plates at fish camps. But they show that catfish can play a role in unexpected places, including Vietnamese and Thai dishes. Coriander Catfish Rolls bring the ingredient to Asian spring rolls. It’s paired with Indian spices in Dodson Lake Samosas. And Delta Paella brings catfish to the Mediterranean classic. Catfish, I barely knew ye before now.

Of course, the book includes precise directions for producing perfect deep- fried catfish, and some traditional sides to go with it such as hushpuppies and slaw.

Salt in the blood

“Fishing has built courthouses, schools, homes, communities. That’s what meant by having salt in the blood,” said Karen Willis Amspacher as she clearly and bluntly laid out the significance of North Carolina’s coastal fishing business in a voice still touched by the vanishing Ocracoke accent.

She spoke on the first day of State of the Plate, an excellent two days of exploring food issues in the state and the larger world. It was organized by Marcie Cohen Ferris, of the Department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and presented by the university’s Center for Global Initiatives, Center for the Study of the American South, Department of American Studies and Global Research Institute.

As a seafood lover, the articulate and forceful Amspacher – she’s involved in virtually everything about helping her home of Harkers Island, fishing communities and fishermen, including being on the board of NC Catch – and her fellow panelist fisherman Morty Gaskill of Ocracoke, spoke to me. One disturbing statistic: 90 percent of the seafood sold in the U.S. is imported. And only a fraction of that amount undergoes any safety inspection.  Add to that issue the recent Associated Press article revealing that some imported seafood was caught by slaves.

When I moved to Raleigh and began writing about food around 25 years ago, I was shocked that it was next to impossible to find seafood from North Carolina in this area. Fortunately, that has changed, as the “eat local” movement has begun to branch out from farms, but more needs to be done.

“‘Know your fisherman’ should be as important as ‘know your farmer’,” Amspacher said. “We are part of the local food movement. You must demand local seafood.”

Gaskill and Amspacher are part of a coastal success story: saving Ocracoke’s fish processing house for local fishermen and making it part of a cooperative. Fish houses have been disappearing, forcing fishermen to either travel farther and spend more to have their catch made ready for sale, or give up fishing altogether.

When the Ocracoke house closed, “there was nowhere on the island to sell. We had to go on the ferry to Hatteras or over to Cedar Island, taking up time that could be spent preparing our boats or doing more fishing,” Gaskill said.

Now the Ocracoke fish house operates as a 501 (c) (3), and they hope to reproduce its success elsewhere.

What can you do to help North Carolina fishermen and their communities? Insist on local seafood.

And, guess what? It tastes better, too.