April 4, 2013
Our Coast's Food: Keeping It Simple
By LIZ BIRO
Coastal Review Online
Fresh from the water, dropped into a pan and seasoned with salt and pepper.
Ask a native coastal North Carolinian what’s the best way to cook fresh seafood and this is the recipe you’re likely to get.
the elaborate dishes that inventive chefs create at hundreds of
restaurants lining the North Carolina shore these days, it’s hard to
remember why simple, traditional seafood recipes like roasted oysters
or mullet and sweet potato stew endure -- until you sample their pure,
delicious seafood flavor.
Letha Henderson in the cookbook,
“Coastal Carolina Cooking” (University of North Carolina Press, 1988),
remembered fondly her father boiling shrimp “just like they came out of
the river with a pod of red pepper and some salt.” The Hubert woman
told of fuss-free dipping sauces: melted butter or black pepper-spiked
The dish seems primitive compared to sautéed shrimp
that Chef James Rivenbark of Wrightsville Beach’s South Beach Grill
layers with herb-crusted eggplant, Tasso ham, and fire-roasted red
peppers. He naps the stack in roasted garlic, boursin, and asiago sauce.
the Outer Banks’ colorful Port O’ Call restaurant, a flounder filet
might arrive stuffed with “crab meat imperial” and finished with
sherried lobster cream sauce.
The late Mabel Smith, a Salter
Path native, crowned flounder with all kinds of sauces, too, when she
cooked in famous Carteret County restaurant kitchens, such as the
former Ottis’s Fish House in Morehead City. But Smith thought the best
flounder recipe was her mother’s combination of fish baked with
potatoes and onions.
Mom added only one garnish: “She would take a real pretty tomato and lay about three thin slices on top,” Smith said
North Carolinians’ preference for modest seafood meals dates back to
the Algonquin tribes that populated the Carolina shores for thousands
of years before settlers arrived.
Those Native Americans in
the mid-1500s offered Spaniards who landed at South Carolina fresh
oysters steamed over an open fire until their shells popped. The
cooking method never went out of style, as evidenced by the dozens of
“oyster roasts” staged every fall and winter in North Carolina’s
Settlers who later lived on remote barrier
islands relied on what they could catch, what they could grow, and
Motherland cooking styles, said Kathy Hart, co-author with Nancy Davis
of “Coastal Carolina Cooking.”
Hart and Davis interviewed native
cooks all along the state’s coast to document traditional recipes.
Baked and stewed seafood dishes incorporating potatoes and onions came
up a lot, including “baked flounder” like Smith’s mother made.
Fishermen were also farmers, Hart notes. Potatoes and onions thrived in the coast’s sandy soils and were familiar vegetables.
were isolated for many years, so they didn’t have access to things like
fresh herbs,” Hart said of barrier island residents. “Plus, a lot of
them were Scottish-Irish immigrants, so they were used to using those
(potatoes and onions).”
Seafood offerings did not start to
change until the 1970s and ‘80s, when a huge influx of tourists and new
residents altered the culinary landscape. With more foodwise and
affluent visitors arriving each year, chefs responded with increasingly
daring dishes, author Elizabeth Wiegand wrote in “The Outer Banks
Cookbook: Recipes and Traditions from North Carolina’s Barrier Islands”
(Globe Pequot, 2008).
“Early Bankers didn’t eat deep-water fish
like grouper or dolphinfish (mahi), but rather fish from the sounds,
like drum and mullet, and they had ample supplies of oysters, clams and
crabs. They considered shrimp a nuisance, a ‘bug,’ which they traded on
the mainland as fertilizer for sacks of corn…,” Wiegand wrote.
dividing line between humble, traditional seafood recipes and
over-the-top contemporary ensembles is easy to see. Disparate palates,
however, always agree on the formula for one dish -- crab cakes.
matter if they’re served in a five-star restaurant or dockside seafood
shack, the crab cakes that English settlers introduced to the colonies
should be so meaty that the cakes hardly hold together.
the advice of Joyce Taylor, author of “Mariner’s Menu: 30 Years of
Fresh Seafood Ideas” (University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
Seasonings in her Deluxe Crab Cakes -- dashes of cayenne, white pepper,
dry mustard, Tabasco and parsley -- hardly seem deluxe. The flavor of
the crab is what should shine, Taylor said.
One sweet bite and tasters ask if Taylor has added sugar to the formula.
“Nope,” she said beaming. “That’s the crab meat.”
Mabel Smith’s Baked Flounder
Butter or lard
¼ cup diced salt pork
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 3- to 4-pound whole flounder, dressed but not filleted
Salt and pepper to taste
4 to 5 medium potatoes, sliced crosswise and cut into 1/8-inch thick slices
2 medium onions, sliced thinly
1 tomato, sliced thinly
Grease a large, shallow baking dish with butter or lard and set aside.
Fry salt pork over medium-low heat until meat releases its oil and pork is crisp.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
place flour in a large, shallow dish. Sprinkle flounder with salt and
black pepper on both sides. Flour both sides of fish, shaking off any
excess. Place fish in greased baking dish. Surround fish with potatoes
and onions, seasoning with salt and pepper as the vegetables are
stacked around the fish. Sprinkle salt pork and drizzle its drippings
over the fish. Add water to the pan to a depth of ½ inch.
uncovered, at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce oven setting to 350
degrees and continue baking until potatoes are tender and fish is white
and flakey, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and garnish fish with
(This story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news and features service
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