As the sheepshead start to show back up around my dock, it has me thinking about how I would go about cooking them. Well, for starters, I’m not going to fillet my sheepshead, and I don’t suggest anyone else fillet them either.

Why not? In a word, waste. It’s very difficult to get all the meat off a sheepshead due to their heavy bone structure. Unless you have good knife skills, a sharp knife and a lot of patience, you’re probably going to not going to end up with very much table fare — especially now that the bag limit is only eight per harvester. Whole fish preparation is the way to go with these things, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

If you look up photos of sheepshead skeletons, you’ll find they have a lot more bone mass than grunts, snapper and other species they tend to hang out with. The head seems to have the heaviest bones, I guess because they need that kind of power to crush the hard shells of oysters and other shellfish with their jaws and human-like front teeth. I imagine if one bit your finger, it would leave a mark. So, don’t put your finger in its mouth.

Preparing a sheepshead to be fried whole is pretty easy and takes far less time than trying to fillet them. Remove the guts, gills and scales, then rinse them off with cold water. All done and ready to head to the kitchen! If you’re a squeamish diner, you can remove the fins and eyes. They’re not gonna bother me, though.

I like to use seasoned cornmeal to fry them with. It adds a crunchy texture, and it doesn’t take much of it to coat the entire fish. I add dried garlic powder, cayenne and black pepper to the cornmeal before I coat the fish with it, but feel free to modify that with whatever flavors you want. Just remember that it’s going into screaming hot oil, so tender herbs like basil and thyme probably won’t have much flavor in the finished product. Use things that can take the heat.

You’re going to need to score the sides of the fish pretty deeply so the meat cooks evenly. This will also help keep your fish from curling up it’s fried. As for the frying part, you could break out your turkey fryer and deep fry them like I did, or you could heat your oil in an iron skillet and fry one side at a time.

I use canola oil because it has a high flash point and it’s cheap. It also will last longer than some other oils when frying a lot of fish. Forget using olive oil. It’s a waste of money to fry with olive oil. If you don’t believe me, just try it yourself. First taste the olive oil while its cold and then heat it up to 350 degrees, then let it cool back down to room temperature and taste it again. I think you will find that they oil has lost flavor and it’s just not the same. Canola is much better, and so is peanut if your diners have no nut allergies.

For sides, you don’t need to reinvent tartar sauce, you might already have some at home. If you have mayo, relish and lemon juice, then you have tartar sauce deconstructed. Add a tablespoon of relish and one teaspoon of lemon juice to one cup of mayo and fold it together. Bam — tartar sauce!

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 information, visit ChefTimSpain.com or call 406-580-1994.

Whole fried sheepshead

2 whole sheepshead (12-14 inches)

2 cups cornmeal

1/2 tsp dried cayenne pepper

1 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp celery salt

1/2 tsp black pepper

1 cup buttermilk

1 pinch salt

Remove scales, guts and gills from fish and rinse well in cold water. Score both sides of each fish with a sharp knife, cutting all the way to the bone. Coat each fish with your buttermilk and then dredge them in your cornmeal seasoning. Carefully place them in preheated cooking oil at 350°F. If you’re frying in a pan, cook each side about 3-1/2 minutes. If you’re using a deep fryer, just let them fry for 7 minutes. Serve them with your favorite sides. (I like sweet potato fries and onion rings.) Serves 2.

— Recipe by Chef Tim Spain, ChefTimSpain.com

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 information, visit ChefTimSpain.com or call 406-580-1994.

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