tripletail fillet

Photo by Alex Benard

Ask local anglers what their favorite table fish are, and tripletail will consistently rank high on most of their lists. We’d love to eat more of them, but we don’t see them around as often in the summer as from fall to spring. Where do they go?

After doing some research, this is what I found out about tripletail. They’re found in tropical and subtropical seas around the world. Scientists used to think there were different species in the Atlantic and Pacific, but DNA studies have shown there’s only one species, Lobotes surinamensis.

My research showed me that they are easily identifiable by the three round fins on the back end, of which only one is the actual tail, but they’re all about the same size. To me, they kind of look like a freshwater speck, or crappie as the folks up north call ‘em. They are nowhere near the list of endangered animals so if you catch a legal tripletail don’t feel bad about keeping it.

The FWC says a legal tripletail must be at least 18 inches to the tip of the tail, and there’s a bag limit of two per harvester per day. No netting, spearing or snagging is allowed — you can use hook and line gear only. Tripletail aren’t the spookiest of fish, so they’ll just hang around. If you get bait in front of them, they often will bite it.

In winter, most fish are caught off the beaches under stone crab trap floats. During the summer, they can still be found around here, but it takes a careful eye. You’d have to constantly be looking for weedlines or other debris floating in the Gulf or Harbor. For most folks, the best plan is to wait until the stone crab traps go back in the water in early October (good news — they’re in now!).

So I guess to answer the question of where they go, it must be that they really don’t go far. They’re just harder to find.

Cooking tripletail is easy. Prepare it like you would hogfish or snapper. Like other fine-fleshed fish, it cooks fast. You’ll want to have everything else pretty much done before you start to cook the fish. I like to do the fish with a simple butter sauce. You can add whatever favor you’d like to the base butter sauce.


Today, I think lemongrass might work just fine, along with some basmati rice and maybe a couple thin slices of prosciutto to add a little fat to the dish. I’m a chef, and every chef likes a small amount of fat in most dishes because fat is flavor. Prosciutto is also a bit salty, so I’ll lighten up on the amount of salt I usually suggest when seasoning fish.

I’ve said this a few times before, but it’s worth repeating: Make sure that pan is smoking hot, and don’t mess with the fish until it releases. The fillets are usually pretty thin and will cook and let go of the pan quickly.

If I were going to pair a nice wine with my tripletail I would be thinking about something crisp but with enough body to stand up to the butter sauce. I’d generally go with a fat-bellied Sonoma chardonnay from California. But since this dish has lemongrass, I think a New Zealand sauvignon blanc would be a better match.

Tripletail is also a good fish to cook whole, like I have done in the past with sheepshead and black seabass. They’re hard to scale, so after cooking, just peel the skin off with the scales attached. (You can also grill them on the half-shell by filleting with the skin on.) If you read Josh’s column last week on the price of fish, you know this stuff isn’t cheap. I suggest cooking as many fish as you can whole in order to get the most value for what you’re paying for or for the time, gas and efforts you might have made in order to catch your own fish.

However, for this recipe I decided to go with fillets so it would come together with the rice and sauce. And it did, and it was fantastic. Don’t be afraid to try this same recipe with any other fine-textured white fish, such as snapper, sheepshead or hogfish.

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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