Make Mine Mullet

The Florida favorite so few enjoy.

Which one of Florida’s many fine food fish grace more of our tables than any other? You’ll probably never guess so I’ll end the suspense.

Our No. 1 favorite fish is … the black mullet.

It’s only because I have so many favorites that I resist naming it as my own personal choice as well, for mullet has been at or near the top of my list ever since I first wrapped juvenile jaws around one, away back during FDR’s first term as president.

If you doubt the mullet’s lofty ranking, take note that more than nine million pounds of them—ostensibly caught in castnets—were landed commercially in 2009. Although that was less than half the 20-million-plus pounds landed yearly during the heyday of gillnetting, it still was twice as much as the runner-up variety in 2009, king mackerel. And in addition to the commercial poundage, countless other Florida mullet were bagged by recreational fishermen using castnets, cane poles, and snatch hooks.

It was in 1994 that Floridians voted to virtually eliminate gillnets. For mullet stocks the ban took effect just in the nick of time. Like several other market species, mullet were being dangerously overfished—mostly to satisfy a huge Asian demand for their roe.

I mention all this in hopes of getting your mouth to watering, for the peak of mullet “season” is right now. It’s not a formal legal season, of course—just the annual period when black mullet are at their fattest, richest, and tastiest, and when you can look for most of them to deliver a bonus of delicious roe. This prime time runs roughly from late October to late December.

If you have enough ambition to heave a heavy castnet, or enough patience to sit and stare at a cork all day, you could certainly catch your own mullet; however, most of us mullet lovers buy ours at the fish market, where roe-laden mullet can be purchased for perhaps twice the off-season price—still cheap compared to most other kinds of fish that don’t even contain roe.

My roots are in North Florida, that part of the state located in the Deep South. There, the centuries-long culinary tradition is to toss just about everything from steak to okra into a frying pan. No surprise, then, that my earliest introduction to mullet and its roe involved a platter of fried fillets, flanked on one side by fried roe and on the other by fried hushpuppies. Old tastes die hard and so this presentation has remained my top choice through the decades.

Mullet are usually scaled and beheaded before being filleted, because the skin helps retain all the rich and buttery taste that mullet lovers dote upon. If a milder flavor is desired you can skin your mullet before filleting. Either way the final step is to scrape away the black membrane covering the belly.

The roe comes in two colors: yellow and white, with yellow roe being by far the more popular among mullet connoisseurs. The white variety derives from male fish and so technically is not roe at all. Regardless, it is also delicious, if not nearly as richly flavored as the yellow eggs it was meant to fertilize.

DEEP-FRIED MULLET AND ROE

Mullet fillets, one per person
Roe, one large or two small per person
Buttermilk, for soaking
Self-rising cornmeal
Salt and pepper
Canola oil or other oil of choice

Adjust quantities according to the appetites of those at the table. Sprinkle fish and roe liberally with salt and pepper then soak in buttermilk for 15 minutes. Dredge and then coat thoroughly with meal. Heat an iron skillet to 350-375 degrees (medium high). Fry the fish until golden brown, about two minutes per side. Remove to paper towels. Next, fry the roe for about the same amount of time, but with a cover on the pan (roe is famous for “popping” and spattering hot grease). Lift the cover carefully to turn the roe once while cooking. Better yet, if you use a covered electric skillet, the fish and roe can be fried together.

For smoking, mullet are dressed a bit differently—by removing the scales, lopping off the head, and splitting down one side of the dorsal surface. The resulting fillet is left “hinged” at the bottom. The entrails are then removed and the black stomach lining scraped away.

Any covered grill is easily turned into a smoker (actually a smoke-cooker) by wrapping a small handful of wet hickory chips in a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil, piercing the foil several times, and placing the package directly on the burner grid of your gas grill. If using a charcoal grill, let the coals burn down to a steady glow, then sprinkle the wet chips over them. Preheat the grill to medium or medium-low. Arrange the marinated mullet, skin side down, on the oiled grate and close the lid. They should be done to your liking in about 15 minutes, but the only way to tell for sure is to nibble on a sample now and then.

Follow every such sampling with a swig of your chosen cold beverage. FS

Originally Published Florida Sportsman Nov. 2010