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Not with a bang, but a whimper, it disappeared. We made the most of it, I suppose. The Yardi Gras decor was nice, a lot of gumbo was made, but if you combined all of the celebrations across southern Alabama, they wouldn’t add up to more than a single scratch on a debilitatingly scorching itch.
You missed your chicken on a stick, I know. You folks love some fried white meat on a skewer. Funnel cake consumption was down to a dangerously low level. Your powdered sugar fix now comes from Mo’ Bay Beignet Co. and Panini Pete’s. It’s tough finding giant corn dogs after dark these days. The MoonPie store is closed, plus I couldn’t find king cake-flavored vodka anywhere.
It’s enough to make a man pack up his foam footballs and head to the house for a good pout.
But let’s look on the bright side for a tic. I didn’t suffer any liver damage, did I? I ate salads three nights in a row this week. In an unprecedented January/February where usually my friends, family and I would be letting it all hang out, we hopped the boring train to Snoozeville. From a different angle, it was glorious.
I won’t have to struggle as hard to get that summer bikini bod. I saved a little money on entertainment, seafood and alcohol. Not once did anyone I know throw up. It’s been a great season!
Who am I kidding? I missed it terribly. I wasn’t sure how it was going to affect me going in, knowing things would be less than optimal. Feeling the absence of the Carnival of Carnivals before the date even hit was a tough pill to swallow. Not playing a float barn party. Not taking my kids to parades. Not judging the King Cake-Off. Not going into survival mode just to make it through Joe Cain Day. All of it hit me hard. Harder than I thought it would.
The world keeps turning, though. The festivities that usually seek to undo us in one form or another are over. And now we are easing into Lent. I rather enjoy a touch of abstinence here and there, so I look forward to some fishy Fridays from now until Easter. You’ll see menus change from turf to surf, as will our menu at home. I’m always looking for exciting ways to make our family meals more fish-friendly and easy.
If you’re cooking from home, get cozy with your fishmonger or seafood department. It takes very little effort to distinguish the good from the bad. If it’s on sale and seems too good to be true, proceed with caution. If you do go home with those two for $5 fillets, be sure to cook them the same day. You don’t need to let these hang around in the fridge for too long. Your seafood salesperson is usually knowledgeable in maximum flavor, so don’t be shy. A simple conversation with your white coat behind the counter can go a long way. They usually care and love to flex that seafood muscle.
Do me a favor, will ya? Quit buying the foreign shrimp. There is no reason to do such a thing. They have little flavor and traveled here from a long ways away. Friends don’t let friends eat anything but wild-caught, Gulf of Mexico shrimp. If you’re eating the Thai shrimp, it will be replaced with more. Ask for shrimp from Alabama waters, and if they don’t have it, settle for anything from the more general Gulf of Mexico.
Whole fish, cleaned and filleted in front of you is a good sign. You have to wonder if some of these other fish were thawed in a vacuum-sealed wrapper.
Have it your way
Most fish can be done on the grill. I love doing snapper whole with the skin on, stuffed with herbs and veggies. Amberjack is another favorite grilling fish. The Mississippi in me wouldn’t dream of grilling or smoking catfish, but I once had barbecue catfish filets at Bay Barbecue on Florida Street that changed my mind.
Of course, the catfish is the king of fried fish. Whole, it will not be beaten. However, don’t turn your nose up to fried grouper. That’s a versatile fish that works well in peanut oil. Cod, halibut, perch and most freshwater fish are great in the fryer. Most of us use peanut oil for its neutral flavor and higher smoke point (around 450 degrees), but for small batches, that canola you have in the pantry will do fine.
If blackening is your thing, redfish is king. Paul Prudhomme had it right when he popularized this technique. It’s my favorite of all blackened fishes so far. You must use cast iron. You must get your heat as high as a normal range will accommodate. You must open a window and hide the smoke alarm.
I’ve never blackened salmon, but Café La Fleur in my home town has it over a salad and it’s unexpectedly great.
When you’re out of ideas, get outside of your comfort zone. Big-box stores like Costco have Alaskan king crab legs and the rarer (to our local stores) monkfish. You can make that filet taste like lobster. Cook it any way you wish, but always serve it with butter. Monkfish is also one of those fleshy fish that works well in soups and chowders the same way shellfish can steal the show.
We love our oysters any way we can get them. Especially local harvests. Don’t forget about mussels and clams. They need some love, too! Find them alive and scrub the beards. Cook them until they open. If it isn’t Friday, put a little tasso in the pan with onion, butter and cherry tomatoes and make a white wine sauce.
Next year’s Mardi Gras will be a hell of a show. Let’s make this year’s Lent dinners Heaven on earth.
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