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 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: 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 to find a signing or cooking class I’m doing near you!

Welcome to Fish Fridays!

The alliteration was irresistible. So stop by here every Friday for the next eight weeks as I offer tips, hints and information that will help you overcome any “fear of fish” in your kitchen.

I found out a lot in working on my new cookbook, “Carolina Catch: Cooking North Carolina Fish and Shellfish from Mountains to Coast” (UNC Press). “Carolina Catch” features more than 90 recipes plus a guide to the state’s fish and shellfish – freshwater, saltwater, wild-caught and farmed. Turn to the Best Basics section  for detailed information on selecting, storing and preparing fish.

Let’s start with three kitchen tools for cooking fish and shellfish that will change your world.  These are all indispensable in my kitchen.

1. Instant-read thermometer. Many people overcook fish, end up with a wad of sandpaper and declare they don’t like fish. Wrong – you just messed up in cooking it. A simple instant-read thermometer, plus the exact temperatures and times in Best Basics, will help you stop guessing and have great fish.

fish spatula

fish spatula

2. Grill pan. In the summer, I like to cook everything on the grill (I’ve even grilled salads). A grill pan with a perforated bottom ensures against shrimp or fish falling through the grill grates, and is easy to clean. I usually spray mine with cooking spray before grilling even if the pan claims to be nonstick.

3. Fish spatula. This tool is great for everything, from turning fish to lifting frittatas or omelets from the frying pan. I hardly use my regular spatulas anymore. It’s thin, slotted, has a slanted edge and is wide enough that you can lift fish without breaking up the filet.

Now, go fish!

To learn even more, take at look at “Carolina Catch.” And the Moose is loose! Visit Events at to find a cooking class or signing I’m doing near you.

Where is local?

The always-interesting Eatocracy blog has a guest post from an Arkansas farmer that raises some questions that I’ve been thinking about for a while. His family has raised cattle for generations, but because the farm ships its cattle to other states for feeding to harvest weight, and because the beef sold nationally, he says some people might not consider him a local farmer.

The knee-jerk reaction is to say that a large farm like that is not a local farm. But the thoughtfully written post made me think.

I grew up across a two-lane blacktop from a black Angus cattle farm outside Winston-Salem. The family that ran it had done so for generations. The cattle were grazed and fed in the fields. In late summer each year, crowds of fancy cars would descend on the farm – once, a helicopter even landed in the field, which was big excitement in the neighborhood – and amplified sounds of auctioneers would drift in the wind. This was decades before “eat local,” so I doubt that the obviously wealthy men were taking the beef to farmers markets. Did that make this farm, which was rooted in our community and donated land for the church up the hill, not a local farm?

What is a local farmer? And what exactly does it mean to “eat local”? Sometimes I ask people what they think “local” means, and they have different mental definitions. Some define it as being grown or produced within 50 miles of their homes, others as from within the state, while others hover everywhere in between.

Because there is no definition for local food, when a restaurant menu says its chicken or salad greens are from a local farm, you really don’t know. Unless you know the chef.

The “eat local” movement is maturing, and the question of local isn’t as obvious as it seems. We need to continue discussing it, and not exclude anyone from the table.

For me, I have mixed views. For produce, I care about freshness and flavor – which means it should be grown as close to me as possible. Also, the farther away, the more chance for some contamination as it makes its way to me. As a farmer friend says, “know your farmer, know your food.” Another point: The more centralized food production is, the more chance for catastrophe through either natural or man-made disasters, which means more small farmers.

What’s local to you?


Piedmont Grown begins

A new program provides consumers a way to find locally produced food, and supports the farmers and artisans who produce it. Piedmont Grown certifies farmers markets, farmers and local food producers in the Triangle, Triad and Charlotte areas.

In order to be part of the program and display its logo, the food involved must be from the 37-county area covered by Piedmont Grown. For example, farmers must certify that they produce the food they sell, and farmers markets must be producer-only markets. Participants must be certified annually, and there is a enrollment fee.

About 100 farms and businesses have registered so far. A searchable index and other information is at the web site here.

Food news roundup

Andrea Weigl’s column in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) explores the fact that the Community Supported Fisheries delivery she signed up for has not been exactly upfront about some of its offerings not coming from North Carolina waters.  Read more here. Weigl believes the misinformation wasn’t intentional. But it raises an issue that has been in the back of my mind. Now that “eat local” has become so popular, some people may begin to view it as a profitable marketing tool. At the moment, consumers must trust restaurants, stores, etc., that the items touted as locally caught or grown actually were. Eaters should continue to ask questions, educate themselves about what is in season and when in North Carolina, and get to know farmers, chefs and producers.

The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer examines how Target’s touted low grocery prices really stack up. Grab your cart and head here.

If it’s not hot enough for you right now, fire up some Hot and Sour Soup from Cary’s Super Wok. The recipe is in the Independent Weekly (Durham. N.C.) here.

NestMeg begins exploring German food after producing a truckload of cupcakes.

For generations in North Carolina, ramps were something you ate because you were desperate for something green after the cold winter, and it was an excuse for a festival that drew political candidates and moonshine. Now, ramps are haute. They were all over Manhattan menus when I was there a few weeks ago. Now, LeitesCulinaria urges us to pickle them. In ‘shine, perhaps?

A video of two top New Orleans chefs making crab and corn bisque is a hoot. It’s at the Times-Picayune, here.

And this has nothing to do with food, but y’all should read it. It’s the blog by Scott Huler, North Carolina’s Piedmont Laureate, here. This one is about little league baseball, but the blog is usually on just about anything. See it here.


Local…really local

When I lived in Salisbury, N.C., an old-time grocery store was a five-minute walk from my duplex. Pope & Arey had

sign at entrance to bickett market near five points, raleigh nc

sign at entrance to bickett market near five points, raleigh nc

worn wooden floors and minimal grocery items, but the draws were the meats and, to a lesser extent, produce. Most of the meats didn’t come from big companies because P&A was a small, independent place. It was the first time I got a sense that chicken could taste different from the stuff in the garish supermarket packages. The guys behind the butcher counter could tell you how to cook anything, from the sausage they ground in the store (scooped from a mound molded to look like a pig) to a fancy roast. I still use the method they recommended when I have occasion to roast a standing rib.

I thought about P&A when I walked into Bickett Market, a new Raleigh, N.C. market near Five Points. The wooden floors of the building for one thing. But mostly that the produce, meats, breads and seafood, and a handful of condiments and other prepared items, are local. In some cases, the produce is extremely local. The market works with New Grass Gardens, a company that specializes in edible landscapes. “A lot of it is grown in my yard by New Grass, and other yards in the neighborhood,” says Jason Stegall of the market.

The owners visit farms and select the pigs for the market’s pork offerings, including lard, which a recent missive to the store’s email list called it “ten times better than the best butter you have ever tasted…the all-natural fat is actually healthy for you.” Well, I don’t know about that health claim, but it does show the hands-on aspect of the market and their enthusiasm for products. The store also offers French Label Rouge heritage chickens from Triple T Farms in Fuquay-Varina, free-range eggs, coffee and roasted cornmeal from Muddy Dog Coffee Roasters, and other goodies.

There’s a variety of local items – but don’t expect everything to be there all the time. Many of the items are available in small amounts – produce, especially, as the weather and season dictate. Stegall says that most customers at the store, which has been open since mid-July, “get it,” that all-local, all-the-time can mean variability. Bickett received an unexpected number of shoppers recently due to an online coupon promotion, and Stegall said some shoppers brought in by the coupon didn’t understand why some items were sold out.

It’s not easy to get to the market with the current road construction in the area, but there’s plenty of room once you get there. And for the neighborhood, it’s a real asset. Find out more about the market here, and sign up for the email list to find out the latest on what’s in the store.

Party at the market

If you live in West Raleigh, there’s a small gem on the N.C. State University campus worth braving the parking hassles to visit. A completely student-run farmer’s market sets up on the Brickyard every Wednesday during the spring and fall semesters from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.. And, yes, students came up with the idea. All vendors sell North Carolina-produced items. Besides fresh produce, there is exotic ravioli from the Pasta Wench in Boone, roasted corn cornmeal (it has an interesting smoky flavor) from Carolina Grits & Co. in Rocky Mount and other vendors.

On April 14, the organizers are throwing “Localpalooza,” with food samples, music and information on finding locally produced food.

With NCSU’s agricultural roots, a market makes sense; with the stereotype of student eating (pizza and burgers), it doesn’t. Read about how the market came about in my article here. For information on the market, visit its blog here.