Savor: Off the Hook

BY Kelly Esposito

What’s better than sitting down to a seafood dinner armed with the knowledge that your filet was caught that very morning? Any seafood enthusiast can tell you with one bite if a dish is fresh or not — it has an unmistakable character evoking the taste of the cool crisp seawater from whence it came. Those of us fortunate enough to live on the Cape Fear Coast have the added bonus of being able to enjoy the freshest seafood whenever we choose. The abundance of piscine varieties our waters have to offer varies throughout the year. Summer is the ideal time to flip past the terrestrial options on the menu and test your sea legs.

Local catches dominate area restaurants’ specials throughout the summer and often feature the three seasonal fish caught this time of year: flounder mahi mahi and grouper. You don’t have to eat out to enjoy these delicious catches. Local seafood is available at several suppliers around town such as Motts Channel Seafood in Wrightsville Beach Greenville Loop Seafood on Greenville Loop Road and Nixon’s Oyster Plant on Market Street.

Though it’s tempting to always order a grouper or flounder filet that was caught just hours before it’s served local restaurants offer many fresh seafood varieties — not caught right off Wrightsville Beach — that are equally divine including salmon tuna swordfish snapper and many others. These somewhat more exotic catches are delivered to town in a variety of ways from trucks carrying salmon to tuna flown in from Hawaii.

It is puzzling to imagine how a filet flown halfway around the world could be as fresh as something caught in the Gulf Stream but thanks to flash freezing this conundrum is now a reality much to the delight of our eclectic taste buds. Flash freezing involves freezing fish very rapidly as soon as possible after it is caught. This technique “captures” the fish as it is straight from the boat and when defrosted and cooked thousands of miles away it is virtually indistinguishable from the fresh locally caught variety.

Many area restaurants offer excellent seafood dishes and three shared with us their recipes and insight. Jerry’s Food Wine and Spirits has been a Wrightsville Beach staple for more than 15 years and it is a sure bet for a delicious variation on a fresh catch. Owner Jerry Rouse explains that with such high-quality fish available the focus shifts to the preparation with an emphasis on bringing out the innate quality of the fish while never overpowering it. Jerry’s goat cheese encrusted grouper is a fabulous variation on a popular local catch.

Wrightsville Beach is also home to 22 North a restaurant that is known for its specials. 22 North serves fresh grilled seafood all summer with each dish taking its own slant on familiar catches. Executive Chef Brent Poteat shares Rouse’s philosophy that the fish speaks for itself that the job of the chef is simply to discover how to best highlight its features with cooking techniques seasonings and sides. Poteat says that with this approach focusing on complementary elements a seafood dish from 22 North becomes “greater than the sum of its parts.” One of 22 North’s popular blackboard specials is its grilled soft-shell crabs with red pepper aioli a recipe that gives the classic crab a little kick.

It’s no secret that Historic Downtown Wilmington is a restaurant mecca and a recent addition to the corps is Tayste. Tayste takes full advantage of advancements like flash freezing that bring us fresh seafood from far away and their dishes feature these catches infused with other exotic flavors. A popular dish is the grilled Hawaiian yellowtail (Kona Kampachi) with a volcanic red and black salt crust served with fresh sea asparagus baby bok choy and pineapple hoisin.

Whether it comes off a boat at Wrightsville Beach or the tarmac at Wilmington International Airport and whether you enjoy it as a fine meal at a local eatery or straight off the backyard grill fresh seafood is a staple of our coastal life: the perfect summertime fare.

22 North | 22 North Lumina Ave.

Grilled Soft-Shell Crabs with Red Pepper Aioli

4-6 cleaned soft-shell crabs
2 cups mayonnaise
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 lemon
1 red pepper roasted and seeded
1 teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper to taste

Mix mayonnaise garlic lemon red pepper Worcestershire sauce salt and pepper. Let stand for four hours. Serve over cooked soft-shell crabs.

To cook crabs:

Season both sides with olive oil cumin salt and pepper. Grill shell-side down briefly. Then turn over and grill over low heat until cooked throughout approximately 6-8 minutes. Set aside and keep warm. Serve with grilled vegetables and rice.

Tayste | 123 Princess St.

Grilled Hawaiian Yellowtail (Kona Kampachi)

2 loins or 25 ounces Kona Kampachi
1 tablespoon Hawaiian red volcanic sea salt
1 tablespoon Hawaiian black volcanic sea salt
10 ounces baby bok choy
0 ounces sea asparagus
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 ounce butter
1 tablespoon sea salt or kosher salt

Preheat grill on high and give it a good brushdown to ensure nice grill marks. Boil ½ gallon of water and lightly season with sea salt.

Remove skin and pin bones from the fish and cut into 6-ounce portions. Remove thyme leaves from stem chop lightly and sprinkle over the Kampachi. Mix the Hawaiian salts together and use half to season the Kampachi and reserve the other half as a garnish on the finished plates. Drizzle canola oil lightly over the fish and then place on your grill. Let stand one minute and rotate 45 degrees to create crosshatching marks. Only grill the skinless side of the fish. Place on a lightly oiled pan or baking sheet and finish in the oven for approximately four minutes.

While fish is finishing in the oven lightly heat the Pineapple Hoisin (see recipe below) in a pan. Do not boil.

Drop the bok choy and sea asparagus into boiling water. They will only need one minute to blanch.

Remove vegetables from water season with salt and a touch of butter toss lightly with tongs.

To plate place sea asparagus in center of the plate like a nest place bok choy neatly into the nest and top with grilled Kampachi. Spoon a little bit of pineapple hoisin alongside and then sprinkle the remaining volcanic salts over the plated fish.

Pineapple Hoisin

8 tablespoons soy sauce
4 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon molasses
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 cup fresh diced pineapple

Purée all ingredients in a food processor until fully mixed then pass through a fine mesh sieve.

Jerry’s Food-Wine-Spirits | 7220 Wrightsville Ave.

Goat Cheese Encrusted Grouper

1 8-ounce grouper fillet
1 clove garlic (peeled and minced)
1 shallot (peeled and chopped)
4 Roma tomatoes
2 ounces chevre goat cheese
1 ounce panko bread crumbs
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
1 tablespoon parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Quarter tomatoes and toss with garlic shallots parsley and olive oil. Place on baking pan and roast in oven for about 30 minutes or until tomatoes start to brown.

Mix goat cheese crumbles and bread crumbs in a small bowl. Set aside.

Season grouper with salt pepper and oil. Grill on each side for 3-5 minutes with a quarter turn on each side. Remove from grill and top with goat cheese and bread crumb crust. Place in 400-degree oven for three minutes.

Sauté spinach and tomatoes and finish with parmesan cheese. Plate spinach tomatoes and grouper.