Snapper is my favorite fish, hands down. I know snook is wonderful, but with closures and protections that have been put in place, I don’t mind thinking of a snook the same way I think about tarpon. I love to chase them but don’t often catch them.
I like the idea of protecting snook. I hope in 2120 people still are just as excited about catching them as they are now, even though you can’t keep them. Maybe folks will be able to keep them then.
But to me, snapper is a whole different kind of fish. These tasty bait thieves aren’t sportfish to me — they’re dinner. They’re often undersized and just plain bothersome sometimes, but if you want supper, snapper is the way to go.
Today is the first day of the recreational red snapper season, which is scheduled to run until the 25th day of July. During the season, you can go out and harvest a bag limit of two fish that are at least 16 inches long. If you don’t get a chance to harvest a red snapper on your own during this time, you can hire a captain with a Gulf reef fish permit until the last day of July.
If I were lucky enough to catch a big red snapper, I’d definitely fillet it. However, I seem to be good at catching little fish, so I would lean towards frying them whole instead of trying to fillet a small fish. It just makes more sense.
If you read Capt. Josh’s publisher column last week, he informed all of us that there is more table fare on that fish than most people think. He’s right about filleting fish in hurry and not getting all the edible meat possible. I understand that completely.
I buy fish regularly, and if my clients want it filleted I will try and get everything I can off that fish frame. Like Josh said, we buy it by the pound, so if I’m paying $8 per pound for whole fish, when I’m done filleting it, the price per pound is higher. But I make darn sure I try and get the cheeks and the throat — yes, I said throat.
If you don’t know what I’m stalking about, next time you catch snapper or grouper that you can legally harvest, turn that sucker over and look at that nice morsel of meat right under its jaws. You might be surprised at what you might have missed in the past. I’ll bet that you might think twice about throwing that away at the cleaning table.
I was taught by my mentor Chef Fred Sherger to make sure I get that throat meat when filleting fish. Chef Fred is a wonderful mentor and loves fishing. He catches big fish. You might have seen him in the reader photos. Usually Chef Fred will send Josh a photo of a firetruck-sized red grouper and or red snapper. Chef Fred can fish!
I think a 16- to 20-inch legal snapper of any kind is the perfect size to fry whole, especially red snapper because you can only keep two per harvester. By cooking them whole, I don’t have to worry about getting all the meat off the fish when filleting. It’s just to right thing to do with smaller fish to avoid waste.
Forget about Miss Manners at the table when you have a whole fried fish in front of you — I eat it with my hands, and you should too. I have been to 26 countries, most of them being coastal. When I have seen whole fish on a menu and then noticed folks eating them, they weren’t using forks and knives. It was always hand to mouth with a cold beverage and some kind of spicy dipping sauce.
If you do decide to fry your snapper whole, well, that’s the easy part. Just make sure to clean the fish properly by removing the guts, gills and scales. Some folks like to cut the fins off too but I like to leave them on just for the presentation.
Speaking of presentation, if some of you aren’t too sure about eating a whole fish, then just cut the head off and present it that way. When I worked in restaurants as a chef, I had to remove the head of many whole fish that got sent back to my kitchen because the guests thought it was looking at them (like the duck in “A Christmas Story”). No problem; I would just remove it and re-present it.
Making sure you have gotten all the scales off that fish before you fry it is super important. I can’t stand to get a scale in my mouth. They are awful and they can easily turn people away from the idea of eating whole fish. So take your time and scale the fish properly.
I’m rereading this column and realizing that while this column is about red snapper, you could apply this method to a host of fish that we have swimming in our waters. Just make sure you take the time to prep that fish before you fry it.
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.