Sand bream, also called mojarra, are a deliciously edible local fish that a lot of people mistakenly think are only good for bait — just like squirrelfish (aka sand perch), pigfish, and sugar trout.
My girlfriend Alexandra and I have been fishing on the south end of Gasparilla Island for almost a month now, and in addition to lots of snook and redfish, we have seen several sand bream caught at the beach on hook and line. We have also seem some larger sand bream caught in a cast net.
One was large enough that I suggested to the angler who netted it that he put that one in the keeper bucket and cook it whole. The gentleman gave me a puzzled look. I responded with a gentle smile and told him to just try it.
The following day I ran across the same angler and before he had a chance to say anything his wife told me how good the sand bream was. She said they’d had it for breakfast. I thought that was an interesting choice for a morning meal, but if it makes you happy it’s fine by me.
When I told the gentleman and his wife how tasty sand bream are, they were surprised since they’d only heard of using them for bait. I have to admit that they do make excellent bait for snook and a host of other predator fish that were lurking in the area we were fishing.
But the sand bream this guy caught was one of the largest I’ve seen, and I know how delicious they are. So I immediately thought of a recipe for it, instead of what size of hook I would need to use it for bait.
I learned this recipe years ago from a Dominican friend. He told me his abuela (“grandmother” in Spanish) would poach them in coconut milk with a little curry, and a couple chili peppers if she had some growing. I have since applied this recipe to many other kinds of fish with flaky white meat that I want to cook whole.
I’ve mentioned preparing fish whole before, and I know it seems odd to a lot of you. I get it — boneless fillets are great. But it just seems more logical to cook smaller fish whole and get more bang for the buck, so to speak. Filleting 10- to 12-inch fish leads to a high percentage of waste.
The state says the bag limit is 100 pounds of sand bream per day, per harvester. You can net them, so if you’re in the right spot, you could limit out on them quickly. If you do, I’d save the small ones for bait and poach the bigger ones using this easy and very tasty recipe.
The hardest part of this recipe is prepping the fish. You have to remove the scales, guts, gills and fins. I leave the head on, but you could cut that off too if you don’t want to present your fish that way. Once you have the fish cleaned, next one want to score the fish on both side by making deep cuts in both directions on both sides of this fish before you poach it.
You could add more flavors if you want, but I like to season the fish just with salt. The curry and coconut milk with have plenty of flavor, so I think less is more when you are trying to decide which seasonings to put in your poaching liquid.
By the way, this recipe will also do a beautiful job on the other small edible species mentioned in the first paragraph, as well as mangrove and lane snapper, grunts, and freshwater panfish. And remember, they make a great breakfast too!
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.