The Essence of Life

The Essence of Life

Saturday, June 15, 2013

From Fish to Feast


A Florida Red Snapper...

Sometime time ago I was invited to join friends Bruce and Steve for a fishing day on the Florida Panhandle Guld Coast. So earlier this week I flew from Detroit to Atlanta and finally Pensacola, and then took a car to Destin to meet the guys at Bruce's condo. Due to bad weather throughout the Midwest all flights were delayed and I arrived quite late, but we still had time for some drinks and snacks before hitting the sack to get ready for our adventure next day.

At breakfast I met José Maria that was sleeping when I arrived, and soon after we were at Bruce's boat, a twenty-one foot Boston whaler with twin 200 HP outboards, and went looking for "rain" in Choctawhatchee Bay. Actually we were after Threadfin Herring (Opisthonema oglinum), a baitfish common in Florida coastal waters, and their schools make the water surface appear to be boiling or under a heavy rain when they are feeding on some small fishes that are no longer than an inch.

We soon found them and Bruce prepared three rods with a sort of surf rig with multiple small hooks that resembled a small shrimp. We barely had time to drop the lines in the water for the herring to bite and when we pulled them back most time we would bring three or four fish to the boat's live well.

After stocking up with live bait (we also had some frozen bait that looked like big sardines), we made a stop to get some ice and crossed under the Highway 98 bridge to gain open waters and cruise on a generally southern direction for over an hour until we reached Bruce's well kept fishing grounds.

And that is all the direction you are going to receive, since I never wrote the GPS coordinates for the place were some artificial reefs help attract small fish, that attract larger fish, that attract large fish. Clearly the ocean is a continuous smorgasbord and every species is constantly eating or being eaten, and only taking a break to breed, and any kind of structure, natural or man made, serves as a dinning room. Bruce showed us some floating seaweed and when he shook it several small shrimps fell back on the water, and immediately some small fish came to feed on them. We also saw several almost transparent jellyfish floating around these seaweeds.

When we reached the first spot marked in the boat GPS Bruce gave a heavy casting rod with a very heavy sinker and passed the circle hook attached to a 60 pound lead through the eyes of a whole Threadfin, and told me to let it go all the way to the bottom, about one hundred feet down. in seconds the bait was taken and the tip of the rod was bending down while I started fighting some unknown monster. A little later a nice grouper surfaced, but we had to release it, even if it was clearly sick, as it was not in season. As the grouper drifted away the water erupted under it and the two feet long fish just disappeared. The former predator had just turned into someone's else dinner.

Next fish came to José Maria, a beautiful Red Snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) that was also released, but in much better health, as it did not meet the minimum size. And then Steve brought another snapper in, and them me, and we basically started reeling in Snappers in sequence, releasing most of them and keeping a selected few.

There were a couple of pauses on the hooking, reeling and either releasing or keeping of snappers. First José hooked some pelagic inhabitant that absolutely refused to cooperate, not only by not moving an inch at first, but by then stripping line from the spincast reel as if it had nothing better to do. I must say that we were all envious of José's luck of having the privilege to fight such a fantastic opponent, especially when he started to be able to recover some line and bring whatever was on the other end with a circle hook on its mouth closer to the boat. But before we had enough to write a new book on the "Middle Age Executive and the Sea" whatever was deep under water, Bruce believes it was a shark, cut the line and bid us farewell. And we never ever saw it!

The next stop was when Steve volunteered to go into the water to untangle some fishing line that got wrapped around one of the propellers. Of course we felt obliged to remind him that José's shark might still be around, but we only did that after he was in the water.

After the second incident a large school of bottlenose dolphins swam around and under our boat, and it was a pleasure to having them around even if they disrupted fishing.

Upon reaching our eight fish limit we sailed (or better saying, motored) back "home" and on the way shared some beers and tall tales about our feats. It is impressive how we try to exaggerate what we had just done even in face of eye witness. I guess all fishermen are alike.

After docking the boat, and getting some more cold beer we took to the task of cleaning the fish, and after the half of the beautiful snappers had been filleted I must confess that I initiated a culinary mutiny. I like to eat whole fish a lot better than I like fillets, and I just had to voice my opinion.

With all kindness "Captain" Bruce compromised and we selected a very nice snapper to be prepared whole, so I gutted it and turned to the marina's restaurant waitress just to have my plans challenged. The chef refused to cook anything that was not a fillet. This time I really rebelled, and asking Bruce for permission to damage his kitchen I said that I would prepare the fish and dinner myself.

I was probably as skeptical as Bruce, Steve and José, but I was already too far to turn back. So we went back to the condo, put the fish on the fridge and drove the golf cart to the Publix to buy whatever I needed for dinner.

Due to my culinary limitations I already had decided to prepare pesce al sale (fish in a salt crust) as it is very simple to do, and even I should not be able to screw it up. In a large disposable aluminum tray I poured a couple pounds of koscher sea salt, placed the gutted snapper over it with scales on, placed a handful of  fresh herbs (dill, thyme and rosemary) in the belly cavity and completely covered the fish with other four or five pounds of salt before sending the whole thing to a 400 degree (F) oven for a couple hours.

To help the time pass I prepared some side dishes. First was a Brazilian "vinaigrette" salad which is made by thinly slicing a large yellow onion, dicing a couple tomates (no seeds, please), and after placing them in a bow joining the juice of two limes, some good live oil and salt to taste. The lime will neutralize the onion and vice-versa, and the result is very pleasing.

I also sliced some nice tomatos, topped each slice with a nice slice of Feta cheese, basil and large amount of the same fresh herbs I used on the fish, plus a generous amount of extra-virgin olive oil. This sample but tasty salad was served on top of good French bread warmed until crunch and drizzled with the same olive oil.

As a side to the fish we had some young potatoes boiled to tender, slightly smashed with a knife handle to allow the dressing to soak in, and dressed while hot with the same herb and olive oil mix. Finally we had baby arugula salad and fresh limes and more extra-virgin olive oil.

When we took the fish out of the oven the salt had formed a nice protective crust that kept the juices and flavor inside.

While modesty is clearly not one of my qualities, I believe that we had an exceptional dinner, that was only made better by a couple bottles of chilled white wine and better company and that crowned a fantastic day.

...becomes Pesce al Sale!

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