When I was little, my Dad would take my brother and me fishing in Pioneer Park in Zolfo Springs. We would fish from the banks of the Peace River, usually with chicken liver as bait in hopes of catching some channel catfish. Often, we would see the mullet jumping in the river. I remember asking my Dad why they jumped out of the water, and he said, “To see if they made it to Zolfo yet.” I believed that until I was about 10 years old.
I believe the actual reason mullet jump is to grab some air when they belly-flop back into the water. If they dive back in head first, they might be trying to get away from predators chasing them. Then again, I might be wrong. If you really want to know, you’ll have to learn to speak mulletese.
Growing up in Zolfo, we ate mullet regularly. My mom loved when Dad would save the roe because she liked to eat fried mullet roe. She said she preferred the roe over the mullet anyway. Myself, I don’t mind the roe or the fish itself. However, I have to make a sauce to go with it, and that sauce has to have some zing.
When I lived in Tallahassee, I discovered a great sauce for mullet. It goes well with mullet any way you want it cooked. Up in the Panhandle, it seemed that smoking the mullet was the most common way of preparing it, but you can fry it, bake it or even have it poached.
After you decide how to cook your mullet, this sauce will be a good one to slap on top or dip it into. It’s an easy sauce that is served cold, and only requires measuring tools and a food processor.
As I’m writing this, I’m wondering where all the mullet that is caught around here goes. I guess it must go up there, because I don’t see it on many menus around here. If you’re looking for it, it is on the menu at the Pioneer Restaurant in Zolfo, where it’s served with a side of swamp cabbage.
Swamp cabbage is a favorite dish in Zolfo and the surrounding areas. It is made from the heart of sabal palm cooked down with salt pork, onions and sometimes a can of evaporated milk until the palm is tender. Native Americans knew how to get the tasty heart out of the tree and passed that knowledge on to early Florida Crackers, whose descendants have carried the tradition along to today.
Mullet and swamp cabbage are both delicious, but together they’re sublime. If you’ve ever wanted to eat like a true Cracker, serve these recipes together and get an authentic taste of Old Florida.
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.
Trempette pour poisson au goût fort
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
A pinch of ground black pepper
1 tsp chopped raw onion
3 tbsp lemon juice
3/4 cup mayonnaise
3/4 cup olive oil
1/3 cup chopped parsley
1 fresh clove of garlic
1 tbsp prepared horseradish
Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth. Keep it chilled until the point of service. Serves 6.
— Recipe by Chef Tim Spain
3 sabal palm hearts
4 ounces salt pork or white bacon
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 gallon water
1/2 stick of butter
1/2 cup evaporated milk
Cut palm hearts into quarter-inch slices. Fry pork in a jumbo iron skillet until rendered. Add palm hearts, sugar, water and butter to skillet. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for one hour or until cabbage is tender then add the evaporated milk. Simmer for five more minutes. Serve immediately
— Recipe by Chef Tim Spain