snapper fillets

WaterLine photo by Chef Tim Spain

These snapper fillets have been seared to flavorful perfection — a browned crust on the outside, tender on the inside.

Last Friday, a few members of the Fishin’ Frank’s pirate crew and I went on an offshore charter trip out of Sarasota, planning to take advantage of the short recreational red snapper season.

We got there early that morning and the weather seemed like it was going to be good (and it was, all day). The captain and mate were there ready to go, and after fueling the boat we headed out to sea. Watching the water go from green to deep blue is always neat, and the feeling of seeing land disappear behind you is one I’d like to have more often. By the time we stopped after about 2.5 hours, we were in very deep water.

We started fishing and the guy next to me got bit and began to struggle with a clearly large and powerful fish. At one point I looked over and he had the rod over his shoulder and was pulling up as hard as possible, but the fish was still ripping line off the reel at the same time. I got out of the way so the mate and captain could help the poor guy.

Whatever was on the over end of the line seemed to be winning the tug-o-war. I asked the captain what he thought it was. He said he thought it might be a big Goliath grouper by the way it pulled. After about 10 minutes the fish seemed to be getting tired and the man began to get line back. When it finally surfaced, we saw it was a big amberjack.

I would have liked a chunk of that fish, but the season is closed until Aug. 1 so it was released. The guy dropped down and quickly hooked up with another one that ripped just as much line. He looked over at me and told me to take the rod because he was tuckered out from the fish he’d just fought. I took the rod and struggled just as he had, eventually pulling up another AJ.

It was time to go somewhere else to fish. We moved and started catching red snapper along with some red grouper and a nice mangrove snapper. After hitting a few other spots, we got our limit of red snapper along with several other species of fish. I look forward to going offshore again and grocery shopping in the deep sea.

But this isn’t a fishing column — it’s a food column. So now that we have our fish fresh from the Gulf, let’s cook it.

The first thing I do is dry the fillets with a towel on both sides and then add seasonings. Next, coat the pan with cooking oil (I use canola) and get it nice and hot. Then, carefully place the fillet skin side up in the hot oil and just let it sit there. If you move it, it won’t develop that nice sear I want for my presentation.

I know what you’re thinking: Won’t the fish stick? Yes, the fish will stick to the pan if you aren’t using some kind of non-stick skillet, which I don’t like to use. I find I can get a much better sear on my fish in a regular old commercial-grade sauté pan. But that won’t be a problem, because it won’t stay stuck.

The key is a good hot pan. After the fish has seared for at least 1 minute, just gently shake the pan. If the fish doesn’t release, then just set it back down, wait 30 seconds and repeat. Soon the fish will release from the pan and you can then flip it over.

Once it’s flipped over, you can either finish it on the stovetop or put it in your preheated oven at 350 degrees for a couple minutes.

That brings us to another point: How do you know when it’s cooked? I always say when it comes to fish, if you think it is cooked, you probably overcooked it. Snapper it an easy fish to overcook if you don’t watch it. If I have snapper in a pan in my kitchen, I’m not leaving the stove until that fish is cooked.

Here’s a neat trick: I use a sauté pan with high sides. After the fillet is flipped, I’ll put a vented lid on the pan, then turn the heat down. That creates kind of a steamer effect, which works well to prevent overcooking the fish.

Chef Tim Spain is a Florida native and has years of experience cooking professionally, both in restaurants and in private settings. He offers private catering and personal culinary classes. For more info, visit ChefTimSpain.com or call 406-580-1994.

Chef Tim Spain is a Florida native and has years of experience cooking professionally, both in restaurants and in private settings. He offers private catering and personal culinary classes. For more info, visit ChefTimSpain.com or call 406-580-1994.

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