Whole Fish

Gulf Seafood + Southern Food

Because of the many points of interest, history and arguments about Gulf Red Snapper, this will be the first part of a series of blogs on the subject.

There is little doubt that the most important offshore finfish species in the Gulf is the American Red Snapper; few fish are as popular, controversial and plentiful off th
e coast of Texas. I know that most of my year is spent gearing up for those scant few days in which the season opens up in Federal waters.

The most amazing thing about American Red Snapper is that our understanding of the state of this resource is so incredibly inconsistent and incomplete. Red Snapper are second only to shrimp in economic importance in the Gulf of Mexico. And, like shrimp, Red Snapper is also one of the most argued about resources. This fish’s history, peculiar habits and habitat (which is heavily debated), the span of its proliferation, its beneficial relationship with the energy industry and immense fan club of recreational fishermen and restaurateurs nationwide make the Red Snapper a perfect example of a much larger issue: how to balance the Gulf as a sustainable fishery and resource for both commercial and recreational fishermen. The arguments, which I will explore in this blog series, over the Red Snapper’s condition, resemble age-old religious conflicts: scientists, fisherman and conservationists alike split down the middle and the only thing that both sides can agree on is that it is unlikely that either point will ever be proven. All of this aside, the most important thing is that the Red Snapper are mounting a comeback, proving that well thought-out and scientific-based conservation programs do work.

As I was writing this, all I could think about was Sunday morning. Saturday night’s busy service, the second week’s airing of The Next Iron Chef on Sunday night…none of this mattered. Since NOAA announced in mid-September the re-opening of snapper season for the next two months (on weekends only), I’ve been planning this two-day outing. It has been almost five years since recreational fishermen have been able to snapper fish during the fall. The re-opening was announced in order for the recreational guys to catch the quota they did not reach due to the BP Deep Water Horizon oil spill.

The re-opening will be a huge boost to the captains and guides of the charter industry as well as the recreational fishing industry in general. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the immense economical impact the recreational fishery has, here are a few numbers: 300,000 jobs in the Gulf Coast Region are linked to the industry and their hard work translates into $41 billion a year. That’s $8.6 million a day. And that shit ain’t peanuts.

Seas were like blue glass

On Saturday night, winds were 5 knots and seas 1 foot at 5.4 second intervals, with 8 second dominant wave intervals. What does that mean, you ask? It means an ocean of glass and it means that I was 50 to 60 miles offshore by the time you were making your morning coffee and busy catching Mahi, Cobia, Kingfish...

Big Kingfish cut down to size by an even bigger Bull Shark

Mike with a big Mangrove Snapper

and a fat limit of these ruby red beauties:

The day's total catch

In addition to the day’s catch it was a magical day on the water with multiple Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle sightings and acrobatic dolphin drafting off our head wake.

Green Sea Turtle

Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle

The American Red Snapper (Lutjanus Campechanus) is also known as Genuine Red Snapper, which pretty much says it all. The most common snapper in the Gulf, the American Red makes its home mainly from the northern Gulf to the Bay of Campeche. Their habitat is mainly between the depths of 50 to 300 feet mostly around reefs, rocks, ledges, wrecks, and offshore oil and gas platforms as they are strongly attracted to any sort of relief or obstruction. Previously thought to be more of a territorial species (one in which adults don’t move around much), recent studies show that only 26% of tagged fish are found in the same place one year later, moving an average of 19 miles before recapture. After a hurricane, tagged fish have been found up to 220 miles from their original location.

Red Snapper spawn over twenty times a year at four to six day intervals between late May and early October. Maturing at the size of around one foot, the smaller fish will produce roughly 500 eggs while the larger ones will belt out around 2 million. Although they are considered reef fish, very little of their diet consists of reef dwellers; instead they dine on mostly sea robins, pinfish, striped anchovies, cusk eels and pigfish. Their next favorite food is Stromapods (king shrimp or sea lice). Because of the Red Snapper’s popularity and successful marketing, there have been quite a few scandals of restaurateurs attempting to pass off other fish – like sheep’s head, black drum and other snappers -- as Red Snapper filet, not because of the quality, but because of the name.

The finished product: Crispy Skin Snapper, Sweet & Sour Swiss Chard, Tomato Brown Butter.

To Be Continued…

After opening and finishing a year at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Dune in the Bahamas, I asked Jean-Georges to send me on a stage (a stage is a series of stints in other restaurants that your chef/mentor sets up for you as a learning opportunity). I started spitting out names of big name chefs like Alain Passard, Alain Ducasse and Marc Veyrat; when I was done, he softly said, “OK.” Whoa, I thought. “But Chef,” I said, “where would you have me go?” I wanted his input, his advice. That’s when his eyes lit up and he began to talk about technique. “You’ve already worked in Europe,” he said, “and the last five years you’ve studied at school and trained with me all things based in French technique. Go to Asia and every day a new and foreign technique will reveal itself.” After five months in Hong Kong and Bangkok, I completely understood what Jean-Georges meant.

I’ve never put much stock in talent. It seems to me it’s always used when people talk of missed opportunities. I believe that hard work, tenacity, not being afraid of failure and a dedication to perfecting technique can surpass talent in any field of play.

Unique techniques that are specific to a region and micro-culture are hard to come by. In the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast region, Redfish on the Half-Shell surely fits that bill.

My first introduction to fish cookery was given to me by my grandfather, Olin “Swede” Caswell, with his technique for cooking Redfish.

Red Drum (Sciaenops ocellatus), Channel Bass, Red Fish, Spottail Seabass -- or just Reds -- are cousins to the Black Drum and have been known to interbreed. The coloring of Redfish changes due to its surroundings, ranging from bright copper to silver gray. Most have one spot on the upper quarter of the tail but multi-spotted fish are not uncommon.

Redfish range from the mid-Atlantic coast to the Yucatan and, although they predominately occupy the lowland marshes and estuaries in the summer months, they can be found in depths of up to 75 feet. Their main diet is crab and shrimp but they also have an appetite for menhaden, mullet and pigfish. Redfish are a Diadromous species.

Redfish have tremendous spawning potential with up to 1.5 million eggs per spawn which, on average, is every two days during their two month spawning period, from mid-August to mid-October. Their 20-40 million eggs per season coupled with their high growth rate and tolerance to fresh water is why Redfish are such a good candidate for aquaculture. Currently, Texas has three Redfish farms totaling 458 acres with a yearly production of about 3 million pounds. During the spawn, male Redfish start to congregate. If you’ve ever come up on a Redfish boil, then you know what I mean. Thousands of Reds stack on top of each other, kicking up mud and making the water “boil.”

Redfish have also played a large part in politics. In 1977, fourteen concerned anglers got together and started the “Save the Redfish” campaign. The Redfish population was in need of help because of heavy commercial pressure, gill-netting and inadequate limits and enforcement of recreational fisherman. These anglers formed the Gulf Coast Conservation Association (GCCA) and, by 1985, their membership had spread to Florida; by the 1990’s their reach went beyond the Gulf and they became the Coastal Conservation Alliance (CCA). Today, the CCA is a legislative force on local, state and national levels in protecting our Coasts.

Now, back to technique. Redfish on the Half-Shell has been a camp house staple up and down the coast all of my life and one that is very unique to this region. Redfish are a very hardy species with a very thick skin and scale structure.

The fish is filleted without skinning or scaling, then oiled and seasoned heavily on the flesh side. It is then placed on a hot grill - scales down - and that’s where it stays. The scales provide the perfect protection for the harsh flames.

The flesh side is basted frequently and covered during the process. This creates the perfect smoked/grilled/baked combination that results in one of the most distinguishable, and flavorful, fish techniques of all.

Redfish on the Half-Shell, Sauteed Gai Lan, Fried Mac & Cheese

Ask anybody: I’ll tell you how, I’ll tell you when, I’ll tell you where and how often.

I’m really an open book when it comes to what I do every day. I love knowledge and learning about food and enjoy surrounding myself with like-minded individuals; sharing that knowledge is how we all grow. However, there are a few exceptions. Some things just become counter-productive when you share. For example, concerning fishing, I’ll tell you how and where I caught ‘em, but only if I’m not going out tomorrow or the day after. Or my A-plus Kitchen repair guy; you know, I’d love to give you Will’s number, but he’s too busy as it is and, baby, when my freezer goes down…well, you can imagine. And inner-city foraging; OK, so not everyone has a need for this information, but you are f#*king crazy if you think I’m giving up my Loquat locales.

Childhood food recollections are what I am all about, just check out my menu; collards, chicken and dumplings, gumbo and yeast rolls from Birdie-Bea and Ma Daigle, my Grandmothers. Redfish on the half-shell and love of all things mayonnaise from Olin “Swede” Augustus Caswell, my Grandfather. And foraging as a child growing up in Houston: scraping honeysuckle through my teeth, picking dewberries from a vacant lot, and the motherload of Spring…Loquats.

The Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) is part of the Rose (Rosaceae) family, whose members include apples, pears, quince and most stone fruit (like cherries, plums, apricots and even almonds).

An evergreen tree (one of the reasons I believe it is so prolific in Houston), the Loquat’s oval, cherry-sized, pear-shaped fruits grow in clusters, with a fuzzy peach-like skin and a tart apricot-like mouth feel. Ripening only on the vine, Loquats will hang tight in refrigeration for about a week, but quickly become bruised if not left on the stem. They contain a high amount of pectin so lend themselves well to jellies, either solo or with a partner. The seeds definitely need to be removed before cooking because they contain a small amount of Cyanogenetic Glycocices, which releases cyanide when digested, which is bad. Interestingly, when you eat the fruit in large quantities, it produces a calming sedative effect for up to 24 hours, which can be good (depending on your affinities).

The Loquat is of Chinese origin and was introduced and naturalized into Japan over 1,000 years ago. It was also naturalized into India and written about in Portugese literature before the Age of Discovery (that was the freakin’ 15th century!) and thought to have been brought to Hawaii by Chinese immigrants; I imagine it was introduced into Houston by way of Hawaii. The most interesting thing is, aside from a few mail order websites, I have never seen Loquats in a grocery store and rarely at the farmers’ markets.

The most important thing to know is that the Loquat LOVES Houston. Once you know what they look like, you too can keep watch on your Loquat locales, and come Spring, check on them daily for ripeness. But if you see me hanging out by a tree in your neighborhood, be ready to tussle.

Loquat and CardAmom PRESERVES recipe

1 quart of Loquats, washed and seeded (discard all seeds)

1 1/2 cups water

1 1/2 cup sugar

8 each toasted cardamom pods

In a saucepan over low-medium heat, dissolve the sugar in water, then add the loquats and cook until the fruit has become transparent. Stir frequently to keep from burning.

Spoon into hot canning jars and top with lids. Tip - a good way to guarantee that your jars get a good seal, place them in your dishwasher (after you fill and put the top on) and run the hottest cycle (without soap, of course!).

The world of an independent restaurant owner is one of many dangers and great peril. Kind of like the 1980’s video game Pitfall: there are snakes, gators, trap doors, rolling logs and quicksand around every corner and it quickly becomes a game of timing and remembering key movements from your last trip down that corridor.

Birdie-Bea Caswell (my grandmother) used to say, “It takes all kinds,” and that certainly explains the colorful cross-section of individuals who make up a restaurant crew. My crew is no different (myself included). With the hours we work and the stress from the level of importance and detail we place on every diner or service, we all end up needing to blow off a little steam, or we forget to pay a ticket or we have a slight misunderstanding with a colleague (myself included). Please don’t misunderstand, I am in no way condoning such behavior, I’m just saying that it happens -- not often but, when it does, you’re going to need a quick hand, prompt action and - most of all - Mise en Place.

Call it an employee benefit, if you like. I’ve always welcomed the responsibility of bailing my crew out when they end up on the wrong side of the law. You might feel that it’s actually irresponsible of me, that I am condoning bad behavior, but the priests at my high school (St. Thomas) used to provide the same courtesy. With the recent James Beard nomination of Phillip Speer -- my first bailee – it just goes to show that second chances are all they are cracked up to be.

Let me lay it out for you (because, more often than not, this is how it goes down): You get a call at 5:30am Friday morning (this kind of shit never happens on Monday!) that your #1 Grill Guy (aka Potsie) is in the slamma. You can count on two things in this situation: one, Potsie will do just about anything to be freed from the chains that bind; and two, who the hell is gonna run the grill tomorrow night? Immediately, the thought of doing those 350-400 covers without Potsie causes a burning sensation in your gut, and the words “Lord, I’m gonna be sick!” cross your lips. Quick as the word bubba, we can make this happen.

Here is exactly what you need to do when you hear that dreaded recorded phrase (“This is a collect call from the City of Houston Jail”) pulling you out of a deep sleep:

#1 – Set up your cell phone to receive collect calls.

I don’t know anyone who still uses their home phone anymore. And cell phones don’t accept collect calls unless you set them up to do so. Call your cellular provider and set up an inexpensive pre-paid option.

#2 – Keep an employee list handy

In the middle of the night, you’re not going to remember how Potsie spells his last name, much less his DOB. Keep an updated employee list handy (with the correct spelling of everyone’s name) and make sure you have their birth dates (the most important information for the bail bondsman).

#3 - When that dreaded call comes, move very quickly.

The goal is to get them out ASAP, despite the inherent, mind-boggling slowness of the entire process. The slamma is one big-ass line – there’s a line for everything, a line to get in, a line to get out. The sooner you get the bond paid, the sooner they get in the line to get out. Even worse is the line to County (so count your blessings if your guy is still in the City jail). Usually within 24 hours, depending on the charge, your friend is gonna get transferred to County, which means flip-flops, orange jumpsuits and the worst kind of company. So act fast.

#4 – Ask Potsie the right questions.

The information the bail bondsman needs to know is:

What precinct are they in and what department?

Remember, Houston has many small municipalities and villages -- West U, Belliare, the Memorial villages. If the arrest was made by HPD, it’s usually Houston St. for boys or Mykawa for the ladies.

What was the charge?

This is pretty important when it comes time to take a collection for the bond.

For most, the first time you get arrested is about the worst experience ever. A little assurance that you’re gonna bust them out goes a long way.

#5 – Immediately call your Bail Bondsman.

Oh you don’t have one? Well, most don’t and that is the core of this lesson. With one trip and a little paperwork, you can make this entire process simple and bail that loved one out with just a 30 minute visit to the Bail bondsman.

I’ve used A Way Out for about six years and they have done me right, but if you have a lawyer friend just ask them who they recommend. While you’re there filling out your paperwork, plug in the Bail Bondsman’s number in your phone and get a contact name, makes it easier when you’re making that bleary-eyed 5:30 am call. At A-Way-Out, it’s Lalo in the AM and Angela in the PM.

Now all you have to worry about is Potsie’s ride home. Usually, that’s the job of the sauté guy who was out with him the night before.

The Trigger Fish

The Trigger Fish is a rather unusual character and tough as a boot. There are 40 species of the Balisidae family worldwide that are also members of the Tetraodontidae class, which links them to the Puffer Fish (or fabled Fugu or Blowfish). There are three main types found in the Gulf of Mexico: Gray, Queen and Ocean. The most common is the Gray Triggerfish, Balistes capriscus, sometimes called Leatherback or Common Turbot.

The Trigger owes its name to the series of spines that make up the dorsal fin. Once the first and largest spine is locked in an upright position no amount of pressure can force it down. The second spine, which is smaller, slides forward behind the first; the only way it can be lowered is by depressing the third spine -- the trigger. This spinal structure is used as a defense mechanism to protect the fish from attack; it also allows the fish to lock itself into a tight space. But this fish’s defensive abilities don’t stop there. The trigger is equipped with an armored body -- bony plates and a leathery skin that can wipe the edge off the sharpest knife. Even with all of this armor, it’s the Trigger’s chompers that usually garner the most attention.

Trigger Teeth

And they aren’t afraid to use them. Just ask my buddy, Captain Scott, who had a chunk of his ear removed by one on a spear fishing trip. Seeing those chisel-like teeth, you can imagine that the Trigger’s diet is comprised mostly of shelled critters: barnacles, snapping shrimp, crabs, clams and mussels; they seem to have a special affinity for echinoderms (sea urchins and sand dollars). Triggers will hunt around the edges of the structures they inhabit in a vertical position and uncover the sand dollar by blowing water into the sand.

Prolific in most of the Gulf of Mexico in waters of 40-200 feet, Trigger Fish mature in 1-3 years and seem to mate randomly (and in a polygamous fashion) resulting in 50,000-100,000 eggs. Once hatched, the young race to the surface and swim into Sargassum mats. They are so dependent on the Sargassum that, in years when the seaweed is sparse, the Triggers’ overall spawn is greatly affected.

As far as fishing goes, the Trigger Fish has always been the unsung hero of the offshore trip. For years, I had trouble prying them from the captain’s hands because they were used as the crew’s bonus. I find that old adage, “You are what you eat,” applies to fish very well. The Trigger’s almost exclusive shellfish diet lends the flesh a very similar taste profile. The Trigger is very versatile with different cooking techniques -- it handles the sauté and the grill equally well. It even shines on the half-shell, showing up on Chris Shephard’s menu at Catalan frequently.

So here it is.
Seared Triggerfish, Field Pea and Sweet Onion Compote, Beet Vinaigrette

I had only been on Twitter about a month when I received a DM (that’s Twitter-speak for a Direct Message) from a guy named Lance Zierlein. (He wanted to do a Stage in the kitchen at REEF (a Stage is when you spend time –unpaid -- in another chef’s kitchen to learn as much as you can about different cooking styles and operations). I’m a big believer in the Stage method of learning and I still do it whenever I get the chance.

At the time, it didn’t click who this guy was but once we started talking, I caught on. Lance, along with his co-host John Granato, has the most popular AM drive- time sports talk show in Houston on 1560 AM, a locally-owned and operated station. (Lance is also a very popular blogger with The Z Report, for the Houston Chronicle. I didn’t even know that independently-owned stations existed in the present day and age of the monster conglomerates. After Lance made it through a busy Friday night service, we set a date for me to come on his show as a judge for the “Late Night Drunken Munchie Throwdown.” My stomach still hasn’t forgiven me for their listener, P.D., who threw down the Ramen, Wolf Chili, Ro-tel, Hot Dog, Cheese, Red Onion and Black Olive gut bomb we experienced. It was the best time I’ve ever had on a radio show -- not a whole lot of structure but plenty of bullshit, right up my alley. Soon after the show aired, comments started streaming in and we both realized that there might be an audience for a relaxed, fun and informative food talk show. And Southbound Food was born.

I feel very fortunate to be a part of such a Bad Ass radio station, and I can’t say enough about the whole 1560 AM The Game crew; they have THE setup that kind of reminds me of the early days of Sports Center (with Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick) when the talent was so damn strong and funny. I recently attended the station’s Mug Awards (kind of like the ESPY awards) where they had real storm troopers, Boba Fett and Darth Vader walking around, Lance did his Rapping Dad routine and Ken Hoffman actually boxed a girl. I laughed out loud the entire time.

The whole vibe of the station is relaxed and Southbound Food is shaping up to be a freak show hybrid of Julia Child and Howard Stern, serving up food and drink with a hefty side of bullshit. Hosted by me and Lance, along with Jenny Wang (from www.imneverfull.com and Houston Chowhounds) and Danny Vara and Franky “The Bull” Bullington (from 1560 The Game), Southbound Food is turning out to be a raucously funny, no-holds-barred roller coaster ride where we cover current events in the Houston food scene, discuss what foodies are talking about (like Top Chef episodes) and bring in leading chefs and restaurateurs as guests (and you should hear what’s being said when we’re NOT talking about food!).

Unlike other talk shows out there, this one’s got a life of its own, walking a straight subject line one minute and careening off into the unbelievable-but-true stories of our lives on the front lines of the cooking world the next.

So far, our guest list has been great with the likes of: Jonathan Jones (Executive Chef, Beaver’s), Randy Evans (former chef from Brennan’s and currently with Haven), Michael Housewright (Block 7 Wine Company), superstar winemaker Heidi Barrett of La Sirena Wines, Gail Simmons from Top Chef, Mike Dei Maggi, Cody Vasek, Robert Hall III, Chris Shepard, and seafood expert Mark Musatto from Airline seafood.

Check out this week’s show a day early on 1560 AM’s podcast site with special guests Tony Vallone, The Fearless Critic Robin Goldstein and featuring a special parody segment where we deliver a healthy right cross to the competition.

Follow Southbound Food on Twitter @SouthboundFood

If you have ever read this blog, or you and I have had drinks that spilled into a long night of me lamenting my long lost youth, then you’ve heard me talk about the white van with S H R I M P written on the side that used to crawl through my old neighborhood, honking every fifth or sixth house. Well, folks, my chariot has returned.

Gulf White Shrimp, (Penaeus Setiferus) is one of the three main commercial species of trawled shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico. If you’ve ever had fresh, never frozen, head-on shrimp then you know the difference from the normal shrimp routine. These are soft, meaty, toothy (but not rubbery), like a small steak from the sea. It’s like the difference between concentrate OJ vs. freshly-squeezed: immediate, obvious, worlds apart.

Fresh White Shrimp

White shrimp spawn in the Gulf with females releasing about 100,000 – 1,000,000 eggs that hatch with in 24 hours. They are then carried shoreward by the Gulf’s wind and currents and, in that time, they are a whopping quarter-inch long. They migrate into the inner bays, creeks and marshes, necessary protection for their survival and growth. An omnivorous species, they have an incredibly rapid growth rate of .04 to .09 inches per day. When they reach about 3-5 inches, they move back out into the bays and Gulf to start the process all over again. Commercially, Gulf shrimp are considered an annual crop with a lifespan of less than a year.

There is a dark underbelly to these soft, white beauties, though. I know that. And an eternal struggle rages within my mind and heart. I often feel like a walking dichotomy, a contradiction of morality, views and beliefs. And shrimp are the perfect example of what tears me in two.

Shrimping is the largest commercial fishery in Texas, yielding almost 236 million pounds per year. Shrimp cost me around $6.50/pound for the 16-20's (a sizing reference, 16-20 shrimp in a pound) – so you do the math. Trawling for shrimp, like gillnets, hoopnets, longlining or fishing with dynamite, is an indiscriminate killer. Those that fall within its clinches don’t have much of a chance, becoming by-catch. By some estimates, shrimping in the Gulf affects 450 groups of organisms. An average haul consists of 67% finfish, 16% shrimp and 17% invertebrates. That equates to 4-8 pounds of fish that are killed to catch one pound of shrimp. If this was the Majors, the Shrimper’s would be getting bounced to the bush league, only batting .170. Most of this by-catch gets dumped back over the side; this I know first-hand because many fishermen take advantage of this buffet/chum line by drift fishing off the back of culling shrimp boats. The larger pelagic species also benefit, especially the King of the Gulf, the Dolphin. Unfortunately, there are no viable outlets for this by-catch, although both fertilizer and food seem to be logical choices.

Since 1995, the State of Texas has implemented an aggressive license buy-back program and (since January of this year) has bought back 1,978 licenses in an effort to control the ill effects of shrimping and bring it to a more manageable state. The mandatory use of TEDs (
Turtle Exclusion Devices) and BRDs (Bycatch Reduction Devices) on trawlers has proven to work when used correctly. I think that those improvements, along with a focus on closures during growth periods to ensure spawning and eliminating bay and estuary shrimping, would ensure healthy stocks and a reduction in by-catch.

Now on to the food!

Recently, I bought about 25 Comals (cast iron Fajita platters) from this dude who was going out of business; ever since, I’ve been looking for an excuse to use them (#howadishisborn). Three weeks ago, I was drifting a gas well offshore, thinking back to my high school summer days, working in the gas fields in South Texas (Goliad, Yorktown, Weesatche, Victoria). The gas would come out of the ground at such a high pressure that it would sometimes cause icicles to form on the well head, even in 100 degree heat. So it had to cycle through a heater in order to warm it up, causing it to condensate and transform it into liquid form. A gin-clear fuel. The plate with the Shrimp and Pink Sea Bream “Salad” is placed on the ripping hot Comal, we pour Dashi on the Comal and then cover it with a dome, causing the Dashi to evaporate and then rain back down on the salad.

Warm Shrimp and Pink Sea Bream Salad, Peppers, Plums and Dashi Condensate