March 03, 2015
A classic dish deserves the right technique.
Blackened fish ready to serve, sided by okra and cucumber-red onion salad, it's a treat.
If I want “blackened” fish, I want it to be really “blackened.” Not just grilled after being lightly dusted with some blackening spice. There's a big difference.
It was New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme who first promoted blackened fish (subsequent demand for which almost caused the extinction of red drum) in the early 1980s. Chef Paul's approach was, in the eyes of health-food proponents, extreme. But in the eyes of the public and the gastronomic press, it was a huge success. After all, his blackened fish had copious amounts of two of the four basic “fisherman's food groups”—salt, grease and sugar. The other component, alcohol, usually finds its way to the table as well.
Blackened seafood, including fish and shellfish, should be black in color but not burned. It should have a spicy crust and the flesh should be tender and moist. Those qualities can only be attained with a spicy “rub” and a quick searing over a very hot fire. The rub is simple and can be store-bought. In fact, Chef Paul's “Redfish Magic” is available throughout Florida at Publix Markets. It's pricey, at about $2 an ounce, but if you decide you like blackened fish you might consider making your own.
The real “trick” to blackened seafood is the pan and the fire. I was fortunate to have inherited my grandma's set of cast iron frying pans. I'm sure some are as old as the 1920s and they're all so well seasoned you can see yourself reflected in their patina. Using those pans, heated over a propane-fired outdoor burner, allows me to get the heat I need to cook fish fillets in just a few short minutes. Temperature is critical, and I usually use a laser thermometer to gauge the heat. When the temperature of the pan goes beyond the 250°C (486°F) top end, it's time to cook. But it's essential not to omit the part of the cooking process that made Chef Paul's recipe famous—butter. It's imperative that you dredge your seafood through a puddle of melted, unsalted, butter, before you cover it with the blackening spice and put it into the almost red-hot pan.
Needless to say, cooking blackened fish (or shrimp, or lobster, or octopus) is a smoky outside procedure; so don't even consider it stove-top. And take special care not to overcook, as fillets from a slot-sized redfish will cook in just a couple of minutes per side. FS
4 six-ounce pieces of skinned fish (redfish, grouper, cobia, amberjack, wahoo)
1 stick unsalted butter
D.I. Y. Blackening Spice
Combine the following:
2 tbsp. hot paprika
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. brown sugar
2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. fennel seeds, crushed
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
2 tsp. black pepper, ground
½ tsp. dried thyme
½ tsp. dried oregano
OKRA AND TOMATOES
Yes, it's slimy. But there's no better veggie to pair with your blackened fish. And the trick is to use the smallest, most-tender okra you can find and to stew about a pound, sliced, with a can of “original” Ro*Tel diced tomatoes and green chilies.
CUCUMBER AND RED ONION SALAD
A good way to cool down the heat from your fish is with a refreshing serving of cucumber salad. Simply thinly slice several crispy Kirby cucumbers and a red onion, then toss with some olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes.
First published Florida Sportsman September 2014