Top Five: Seafood Dishes

My wife and I absolutely love seafood, much more so, it seems, than our Mid-Western neighbors. Perhaps it’s the result of growing up in the South – where catfish, trout or shrimp come across a dinner plate on a weekly basis – or maybe it’s because we love the unique textures, flavors, colors and aromas that come from the fruits de mer. Whatever the reason, we never pass up the chance to indulge in sushi or fix a delicious and fishy meal at home.

To many, seafood and high prices go hand-in-hand. However, with smart budgeting and the right recipes, seafood can be a household staple in even the thriftiest of homes. Moreover, the health benefits of seafood – which are high in Omega-3 fatty acids and a plethora of wonderful vitamins and minerals – make this protein a must-eat.

1) Tuna Sandwiches

$34 Total – 6 Portions – $5.66 Per Serving

About a year ago, my wife and I saw a recipe for pan bagnat, and we decided to give this French dish a try. Since then, we’ve altered the recipe quite a bit to fit our tastes and cooking style, but the essential taste remains the same. These Provençal tuna sandwiches are reminiscent of classic tuna salad sandwiches, but with a Mediterranean twist. The result is a flavorful, balanced and fresh seafood sandwich perfect for a summertime supper or a weekday lunch.

I start by mixing three quarters of a cup of mayonnaise, a spoonful of mustard, a small container of chopped niçoise olives and some finely chopped fresh basil in a large bowl, along with salt, pepper, paprika and oregano to taste. Then, I add in three tins of tuna – preferably high-quality, sustainably harvested Italian or French tuna. To add an earthy depth of flavor to the mixture, I add the oil from one tin of tuna along with the fish itself. Moreover, the oil helps everything combine easier, and it makes the resulting sandwiches a bit healthier as well.

To combine, break the fish into small pieces and stir it gently into the mayonnaise mixture. It is important not to overmix, otherwise you will end up with tuna goop rather than chunky and hearty tuna salad. Once everything is thoroughly incorporated and well-seasoned, spoon the tuna mixture on toasted sourdough or Tuscan bread and top with thin slices of red bell pepper.

Since my wife and I usually have these sandwiches for lunch, we like to serve them with an easy-to-transport side like root vegetable chips or a simple pasta salad.

2) Arctic Char

$19 Total – 4 Portions – $4.75 Per Serving

Arctic char is an incredible-tasting North Atlantic fish that makes a cheaper and more sustainable alternative to wild caught salmon. Icelandic, farm raised char is the most common variety, and its rich and fatty flavor set it apart as a premier roasting fish.

Because of its naturally delicious and fresh taste, I always dress char simply. In a bowl, I combine a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, a tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper. Sage or dill make great additions to the marinade as well, but I suggest adding them sparingly. Next, I place four to six fillets in either a Pyrex dish or steel baking pan, and spoon the marinade over the fish.

Finally, I bake the char uncovered at 350 degrees for about 20-25 minutes, or until the fat stops rendering out of the fish. It is important not to overcook the fillets because fish tends to dry out quite easily. To tell if the fish is fully cooked, slide a fork into the middle of a fillet for a few seconds and then feel it with your finger or tongue. If the fork is warm, the fish is cooked – otherwise, it still needs a few minutes in the oven. When the char is done, take it out of the oven and spoon the juices over the fish to baste the fillets.

Since char is a fatty cold-water fish, my wife and I typically serve it with a light side dish. Our go-to accompaniment is a fresh summer salad with a vinegar and dill dressing. First, I finely dice half a red onion and place it into a Pyrex dish. Then, I add about one to one and a half tablespoons of white wine vinegar to the onion, along with salt to taste. As the onion sits in the vinegar and salt, it quickly and lightly pickles and begins to lose much of its strong taste.

Next, I dice a cucumber and two to three heirloom tomatoes. I prefer darker tomatoes as these tend to be firmer and less watery. I then add the cucumber and tomatoes to the onion and season everything with pepper, olive oil and dill. While fresh dill – like any herb – is always best, I often opt for dried dill because I only need a touch of the herb for the salad, and I rarely use it in other dishes. Finally, I put the lid on the bowl and shake well to mix everything thoroughly. For optimal flavor, I refrigerate the salad for at least 30 minutes before serving. The cool, fresh salad makes an excellent addition to the hot, rich char, and the acidic and tangy flavors perfectly complement the marinade on the fish.

3) Blackened Cod

$36 Total – 6 Portions – $6 Per Serving

Being from the South, blackened fish holds a special place in my heart. One of my and my wife’s favorite fish to cook using this New Orleans technique is black cod. Known by fishmongers as the poor man’s sea bass, black cod – properly known as sablefish – is a buttery, dense white fish that holds up well to bold flavors and the high heat of oven roasting or grilling.

To start, I lightly coat the bottom of a baking dish with olive oil. I then rub four to six fillets thoroughly with store-bought blackening spice. Since we shop at Whole Foods, we use the Allegro brand blackening blend that can be purchased for pennies in bulk. When the fillets are well coated, I place them in the pan, spacing them out evenly. Finally, I add a small container of cherry tomatoes around the fish, and season these lightly with salt and pepper. I bake the fish at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until the fillets begin to flake apart.

As a fitting accompaniment to our Southern fish, my wife and I typically indulge in cheddar cheese grits. For a Mezo-American twist, you could use polenta instead. I begin by boiling three cups of chicken stock and one cup of half and half in a large pot – using the ratio four parts liquid to one part grits. When the liquid comes to a rolling boil, I lower the heat to medium-low and add in a cup of grits, stirring vigorously. After a few minutes, the grits will thicken. At this point, I add a cup of extra sharp cheddar cheese and black pepper to taste. When the cheese mixes completely with the grits, I turn the heat off and leave the pot covered until time to serve.

I prefer to plate the dish with a few spoonfuls of grits in the bottom of a bowl, topped with a generous sprinkling of the remaining cheese. Then, I place a fillet of cod on the grits, surrounded by a few tomatoes, and I drizzle everything with the pan drippings from the fish. The result is a bold and refined soul-food dish that combines hearty and rustic elements with fresh flavors and ingredients.

4) Shrimp Gumbo

$32 Total – 8 Portions – $4 Per Serving

No two gumbos are created equal. Every family in every region of Louisiana has its own recipe and traditions for making gumbo, and my version is no different. While many of the elements of this dish have been passed down to me from my Cajun grandfather, my wife and I have added our own twist to make this gumbo recipe distinctly our own.

To save time and hassle, I always begin by cooking my rice first. In a large pot, I place a few cups of rice and add roughly double the amount of water – sometimes more depending on the rice variety. I then add a spoonful of chicken base – in lieu of stock – along with a drizzle of olive oil, and I cook the rice covered over medium-low heat until the water is completely absorbed. Cooking rice at a lower temperature may take longer, but it prevents sticking and it means less time checking-in as it cooks.

Next, I prep all my ingredients for the gumbo. I first peel and devein about three quarters of a pound of wild-caught Gulf shrimp and place the cleaned crustaceans in a bowl for later. Then, I dice an onion, chop a few stalks of celery and slice three to four andouille sausages and set them aside in a separate bowl. Finally, in a third bowl, I combine two diced red bell peppers, some chopped fresh parsley, a small bag of frozen okra – because we can never find fresh okra in the grocery store in Cincinnati – and a small can of diced green chilies. While this may seem tedious and although it undoubtedly dirties up a few more dishes, it makes the cooking process infinitely easier and less stressful.

When all the ingredients are ready to go, I place half a cup of flour and half a cup of butter in the bottom of a stock pot. I then heat the mixture over medium-high heat to make a roux. It is crucial to watch the roux closely as it cooks, stirring constantly to avoid burning. When the roux caramelizes, turn off the heat and continue stirring until it turns a deep, nut-brown color. Once the roux reaches its peak, add the onion, celery and andouille to the pot and turn the heat back up to medium. I also add a little bit of olive oil at this point to stretch the roux and provide an extra depth of flavor.

As soon as the onion and the sausage brown – which doesn’t take long since the scorching hot roux helps them cook quickly – I add in the bell peppers, parsley, okra and chilies and cook these down for about ten minutes. In my family recipe, chicken stock is added immediately once the vegetables, chilies and herbs are introduced, but I find the final taste to be subtler and more complex if all the ingredients – minus the shrimp – are browned first.

Finally, when everything is cooked down, I pour three quarts of chicken stock into the pot along with the shrimp. You can add more or less stock depending upon whether you prefer your gumbo to be more like a stew or a soup. Additionally, I like to add a dash of filé gumbo – a traditional seasoning made from sassafras – which helps with thickening and brings another herbaceous flavor to the stew.

To finish cooking the gumbo, as Anne Burrell would say, it’s time to BTBRTS – bring to boil and reduce to simmer. I recommend letting the gumbo simmer for about half an hour, but like most stews, gumbo’s flavor intensifies the longer it cooks. Once the gumbo has cooked thoroughly and tastes just right, turn off the heat and ladle the delicious, dark stew into a bowl over rice.

5) Oyster Po-Boys

$31 Total – 6 Portions – $5.16 Per Serving

For my final top five recipe, I turn to yet another Gulf specialty. While oysters have a reputation for being pricey – especially in the Mid-West – you can often find un-shucked oysters at your local fishmonger for a dollar a mollusk or you can purchase them seasonally fresh-packed in a jar. Since I’m no professional with a shucking knife, I prefer the easier alternative of jarred oysters. However, these should always be eaten right away and never kept in your refrigerator for more than a day.

Since oysters need very little time to cook, I start on my side dish of sweet potatoes first. After peeling and washing three to four sweet potatoes, I cut them into half inch slices and then finely dice them into small pieces. Although it takes some time to cut this many sweet potatoes into such tiny pieces, the results are well worth it. As I place the chopped tubers into a pan, I spread them out flat and season them with a mixture of salt, pepper, thyme, sage, cinnamon and olive oil. Then, I add a second layer of potatoes and season again, repeating until all the potatoes are in the pan. This way, the seasoning disperses evenly throughout. Lastly, I cover the pan with foil and bake at 400 degrees for about 35 to 40 minutes, or until the potatoes are fork tender.

To prepare the oysters, I combine a cup of flour and three quarters of a cup of panko bread crumbs in a plastic bag and season generously with paprika, salt, pepper and oregano. I then drain the oysters, douse them in an egg and milk wash and add them one by one to the bag. When all the oysters are inside, I seal the bag and shake well until the oysters are completely covered in breading. You may need to shake the bag at different angles to ensure an even coating and to prevent the oysters from sticking to one another.

I prefer to fry my oysters in a Dutch oven – as it retains heat well and prevents splattering due to the high walls of the pot – but a cast iron skillet works just as well. Next, I pour about a half an inch of grapeseed oil into the pot and heat it to medium. Grapeseed oil is excellent for frying because of its high smoking point and mild flavor, and it makes a healthier alternative to peanut or canola oil. As the oil heats, I place a small piece of breading into the pot to test the temperature. When the tester begins to bubble rapidly, I add my oysters to the oil, making sure not to overcrowd the pan. Since I want my oysters fry crisp without sticking to the bottom of the pot, medium heat or just a little higher tends to work best.

After I place the oysters in the oil, I move them slightly with tongs to ensure they don’t stick. I also try to turn the oysters only once as they fry, so that they cook crisp and golden brown on both sides without absorbing too much oil. Once the oysters are perfectly cooked, I transfer them to a bowl or plate lined with paper towels to soak up residual oil, and I season them with salt and pepper while they are still hot.

To complete the meal, all that’s needed is a delicious remoulade sauce, some toppings and a few soft and warm brioche buns. While a French baguette is traditionally used as the vehicle for an authentic po-boy, brioche hot dog buns stay fresh longer and they are easier to bite through, yet they remain firm enough to handle all the ingredients. For a quick and yummy remoulade, combine two tablespoons of mayonnaise, a spoonful of ketchup, a teaspoon of either grained mustard or horseradish, salt, pepper, lemon juice, paprika and a few dashes of Tabasco. When all is ready, I simply place the toppings – lettuce, tomato, pickles and remoulade – on the toasted buns and add four to five oysters to each sandwich.

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