Summer in the South calls for gettin’ fishy with it.
SOUTHERNISM OF THE WEEK
Fish or cut bait: Proceed with your intended action or stop talking about it, get out of the way, get on with your life, and let the rest of us get on with ours. Folks on both sides of the political aisle could take lessons …
FISHY FUN TIME
Crawfish season may be winding down, but fish season is in full swing throughout the Magnolia State. Mississippi is truly blessed to have abundant species of freshwater and saltwater fish just waiting to be caught and consumed grilled, fried, sautéed, baked, or broiled. Yum.
This season’s cool, wet spring contributed to a better-than-usual bounty of fish such as crappie, one of The Old Bride’s perennial favorites and one of the most plentiful fish species throughout the state. Most of us recognize that crappie, like catfish, are heavenly when fried.
All Southerners love fried fish, but sometimes it’s sinful to mask the delicious flavor of our local white-fleshed specimens. The varied options for cooking range from steaming delicate white-fleshed fish in foil packets or in a grill basket, to searing the more robust varieties on a hot, oiled grill.
Our local trout and bass make terrific grill fare. Mississippi has limited freshwater trout, which flourish in colder waters. But brooks, lakes, rivers and ponds in areas around the state contain five varieties of trout: Rainbow, brook, brown, cutthroat, and lake trout. Availability fluctuates from year to year, depending on weather patterns.
Bass are plentiful in our state, and bass season peaks in May and June. Excellent bass fishing always occurs at Pickwick and Ross Barnett. Bass tournaments are held annually at area lakes such as Sardis, Enid and Columbus. NOTE: Freshwater bass, like wild catfish, are bottom feeders, and can taste like the murky water at the bottom. To offset this, brine your prepped fish in lightly salted water in the fridge overnight.
Speaking of salt, Mississippi is blessed with abundant saltwater fish. Speckled trout (also known as spotted seatrout) provide one of the region’s most plentiful and popular fish for recreational fishing. Speckled trout are not really trout, but a member of the drum family, and lurk in the brackish waters of the bayous and bays along the Gulf Coast during breeding season (from spring to summer).
We also have abundant and various types of redfish, including red drum and red snapper. The current red snapper season began June 1 in Federal waters three miles off the coasts of MS, AL, TX and FL. The current MS and AL season runs through July 4, with limits of 2 per day at least 16 inches long.
Grilling is perfect for whole or thick-cut steaks or fillets from robust Gulf fish such as the common dolphin fish (both the mahi-mahi and the dolphin pompano — neither related to the mammal dolphin), tuna, cobia, grouper, or King Mackerel. Prepare steaks and fillets of these fish by lightly seasoning with olive oil, salt and pepper. Clean the grill and oil it well, then sear the fish on both sides, turning once after a few minutes, being careful not to over-cook because this type of fish tastes better slightly undercooked. Spritz the steak or fillet with lemon juice and melted butter.
When grilling a whole fish, stuff the cavity with lemon wedges and herbs such as herbes de provence, fines herbes, or creole seasoning.
Delicate-fleshed fish such as tilapia, catfish, or trout tend to dry out and fall apart when cooked direct on a grill. They should be grilled in a basket or in foil packets on medium-hot heat. When baking, set the oven to 350˚F (medium-hot). If grilling outdoors, note that a charcoal fire will be medium-hot when you can hold your hand 5 inches above rack for 3 to 4 seconds. If grilling with gas, preheat the grill burners on high, covered, for 10 minutes, and reduce heat to moderate-high.
Whatever your method for grilling your fish, be bold, be daring. Practice makes perfect.
I made a foil bag packet for the snapper and grilled it with the packet closed for the first half of cook-time. When cooking on a grill, the snapper will cook faster than in the oven. You will have to gauge your cooking time according to size of the fish and heat of the grill.
1 fresh whole snapper, gutted and cleaned
2-1/2 T extra virgin olive oil
Leaves stripped from 5 sprigs of fresh thyme
Leaves stripped from 3 sprigs of fresh oregano
7 large fresh basil leaves, divided 3 and 4
1 large clove of garlic, minced
1 tsp kosher salt
One lemon, cut into 3/4-inch wedges
Layer two pieces of heavy-duty aluminum foil in a cross pattern, each about 15 inches long. Pat snapper dry. Coat outside of fish with 1 T of olive oil. Combine salt, herbs and garlic with 1-1/2 T olive oil; spread mixture evenly inside the fish. Stuff lemon wedges at angle inside the fish, allowing to extrude. Place four large basil leaves over top side of the fish exterior. Fold up sides of top foil around fish, allowing room at top for steam, and pinch edges closed. Bring up outer foil around inside foil packet, and pinch edges closed.
Place on grill or in oven on bottom rack (upper racks removed) to cook on medium-hot (350˚F in oven, or grill equivalent). Grill about 15-20 minutes while sealed. It’s better to keep the packet sealed until ready to serve, but most of us who don’t cook fish daily will need to check for doneness by opening the packet. If additional cooking is needed, return to grill or oven for a few minutes with foil packet open at top. The result is not beautiful to look at, but tastes great. Skin will peel back readily and flesh will flake when ready. Any leftovers adapt well to fish tacos!
GRILLED TROUT WITH SUMMER SALSA
I used freshwater lake trout, each weighing less than a pound when cleaned. This recipe works well for any delicate, white-fleshed fish. NOTE: Summer salsa is fantastic served with chips or crusty bread, even without the fish.
10.5-oz container of yellow sunburst cherry tomatoes
3 c fine-chopped red watermelon (1/2-inch cubes)
2/3 c red onion, minced
2 to 3 T fresh cilantro, minced, to taste
1 yellow Serrano chile (about 3-inches long), minced, with some seeds
Juice of 2 limes
1 tsp sea salt, or more to taste (depends on watermelon)
Just before cooking the fish, prepare the salsa. Cut each cherry tomato in half. Combine with watermelon, red onion, cilantro and chile. Squeeze juice of the limes over the mixture. Sprinkle salt over mixture and toss gently.
Grilled or Baked Trout:
6 small trout, gutted and cleaned, heads removed
2 T extra virgin olive oil
Fresh ground black pepper
Pat fish dry, and splay, skin-side down, on lightly oiled grill rack or aluminum foil-lined baking pan. Brush flesh side with oil and season with salt. Squeeze lime juice evenly over fish. Grill or bake on medium-hot until just cooked through, as fast as 8-9 minutes for smaller fish. For bigger fish, you might need to turn once on the grill. Serve the fish topped with Summer Salsa.