August 11,  2008

Island Cooking:
From the bottom of the sea comes some of its sweetest treasures

Some of the sea’s sweetest treasures come from its depths.  When the water is warm and the currents are right, the “bottom fishing” off our coast produces a variety of excellent food fish.

The beautiful beeliner, or vermillion snapper, is as much a joy to behold as it is to eat.  Its body is rich vermillion with yellow-gold streaks.  Its fins are red and rose-colored. 

We are fortunate that their northernmost habitat is right here off Cape Hatteras.  Not being a true bottom eater, it hovers at mid-depth around wrecks, ledges, and reefs, and it feeds on the small swimming crustaceans, mollusks, and fish found high in the water column. 

Beeliners are cousins of the more frequently eaten and better known red snapper that is a true bottom dweller and another common variety, the yellowtail snapper. 

Snapper is low in saturated fat and sodium and is a very good source of protein, in addition to being delicately flavored.  The meat is lean, white, and firm textured and can be cooked almost any way you like.

Recently our friends, Bill and Joann Coyle, invited us for a dinner of red snapper they had caught.  Bill found a recipe in an old book that identifies Atlantic fish and we were his tasters. It was such a success that I tried it a week later when Patrick Caton gave me some vermillion snapper he had caught on the Little Clam and it was equally tasty.

Our porch is covered with pots filled with herbs so I substituted them for the dried herbs in the old recipe.  The result was slightly different but equally flavorful.


2-3 ponds fresh snapper fillets
1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons chopped dill pickle
2 tablespoons parsley flakes
1/4  teaspoon sweet basil
1/4  teaspoon dry mustard

Place the fillets in a lightly buttered baking dish. Mix the sour cream with the dry ingredients and pour the mixture over the fillets. Bake at 375° for 20-25 minutes, until flaky.

This is so scrumptious and easy that you, too, will be looking for other fish to cook this way.  You can use just about anything that comes from the sea.

When I received some triggerfish (thank you again, Patrick!), my mouth started to water in anticipation.

Trigger is one of our most delicious and versatile fish, tasting mildly of the sea.  This funny fish actually has a trigger.  Its first dorsal spine (top) can be locked or triggered vertically to anchor it to a crevice or hiding place.  It can only be unlocked by positioning its second dorsal spine horizontally.

I wanted to savor its delicacy so I chose to poach it.

I have always poached fish in wine or herb-infused water but never in milk.  It seemed a good pairing with this fish, so I adapted a recipe from “Mariner’s Menu: 30 Years of Fresh Seafood Ideas” by Joyce Taylor, published by North Carolina Sea Grant.

Wow!  It was even better than I had hoped.  A fragrant, high quality dried bay leaf is the magic ingredient in this gently-flavored, gently-cooked dish.


4 small triggerfish fillets
3 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups water
1 large onion, sliced
1 carrot, chopped
1 dried bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

Place all of the poaching ingredients in a shallow pan not much larger than the 4 fillets.  Bring to a boil. Immediately partially cover the pan, reduce the heat and let the milk simmer about 10 minutes.

This step is important so that the liquid is infused with the flavorings.  Just take the time to watch (Remember: A watched pot never boils!) so the milk does not scorch or boil over.

Submerge the fish fillets in the gently simmering liquid about 10 minutes, until the fish flakes easily with a fork.

For a richer finish, dress with Mornay Sauce.  Surprisingly, it doesn’t overwhelm the fish and can also be served on your vegetables.


1 tablespoon butter or margarine
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup fish or chicken broth
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper (If you don’t have white, use black    pepper.  The white is called for to preserve the pale color of the sauce, but I don’t object to a few black specks since they impart flavor.)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup good quality freshly grated Gruyere cheese
Pinch cayenne
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt

Melt butter or margarine in medium saucepan over medium heat.  Thoroughly whisk in the flour.  Add broth, stirring constantly, until thickened.  Add white pepper.

In a separate bowl, blend egg and cream.  Remove the pan from the heat and gradually add the egg and cream mixture to the thickened sauce base. Return to heat and cook, stirring constantly, until it thickens.  Do not allow to boil. Add cheese to the sauce and continue cooking over low heat until the cheese is melted into the sauce.  Add cayenne, nutmeg and salt.

Many people on the islands grow summer veggies, and I have a pot garden on the front porch.  Except for the onion, all of the vegetables in this side dish came from the porch.  It is, to me, the essence of summer.


Extra virgin olive oil, preferably an Italian variety
Chicken broth (canned is fine)
Assorted fresh vegetables
Fresh oregano (Vicki gave me some of her “hot and spicy oregano.”)
A good melting cheese ( I used Fol Epi that I got from Lee Robinson General Store.)
Pecorino cheese ( Pecorino de Pienza is not as sharp as the Romano variety.)

Lightly oil individual gratin dishes with olive oil.

Thinly slice all the available summer veggies you have.  Cut the small tomatoes in half to avoid bursting when heated.  I used grape and cherry tomatoes in a colorful medley of yellow, orange, and red, green peppers, onions, eggplant, and zucchini.

Arrange the sliced veggies in layers, sparingly sprinkling each layer with sea salt, cracked black pepper, and roughly chopped fresh oregano and a few drops of oil. Pour about 1/3 cup of chicken broth over and top, first with plain bread crumbs and then with the melting cheese.  Finish with grated Pecorino.

Place the individual dishes on a baking sheet or half pan and bake at 350 degrees for approximately 15-20 minutes until the veggies begin to soften.

Turn off the oven and switch on the broiler and heat until the cheese melts and begins to brown.  An extra sprinkle of oregano accents the flavor.

The last time I was in Vicki Harrison’s new Harbor House Seafood Market on Highway 12 in Hatteras village she had golden tilefish, fresh from her husband’s boat.  It is a rare delicacy that I had heard about but had never tasted before, so I was very excited to try it.

Another gorgeously colored fish, golden tile is actually an iridescent blue-green with golden spots and a rosy head.  They live in depths from 250 to 1,500 feet and, strangely, live individually in cone-shaped burrows.  Their diet is similar to other bottom feeders.

Golden tile is often referred to as “poorman’s lobster.”  Yes, it does strongly resemble lobster in both flavor and texture but it may not suit a “poorman’s” budget!  It is well worth the cost, though, especially since it is not usually available.  Like lobster, it is also rich so you won’t need large portions either.  If you see it, indulge yourself!

When I asked Vicki how to best prepare it, she passed on a terrific tip that one of our local watermen, Rick Scarborough, had given to her.

Cut off a small chunk of the fish and add it to your poaching water to create instant fish broth.

So back to the poaching pan, only this time I used enough water to just cover the fish, a pinch of sea salt and a small piece of the fish.  I am always tempted to add herbs or other flavorings but refrained this time, so I could experience the pure flavor of the golden tilefish.

Bring the poaching liquid with flavorings to a boil.  Add the fish, cover and turn off the heat.  Let the fish sit in the warm water for 10 minutes.  As with the other recipes, it is ready to eat when it flakes with a fork.

Melt some butter for dipping or drizzling, as with lobster, and enjoy every single forkful!

Pop a bottle of chilled bubbly (I favor Italian Prosecco.) and offer a toast to the local watermen who make these delicacies available.

(Lynne Foster lives in Hatteras village with her husband, Ernie. Together they operate The Albatross Fleet of charter boats. They actively support the sustainable practices of the island’s commercial fishermen and the preservation of Hatteras Island’s working waterfront.  Both love to cook seafood and entertain friends, and Lynne loves to experiment with recipes for locally caught seafood.)

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