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We love to prepare and eat fish. And we’re fortunate that, thanks to UPS, Louisville chefs and home cooks have great access to fresh fish from all three coasts.

Some people are intimidated by the prospect of cooking fish, which is a shame since seafood offers a variety of tastes and textures and can be deliciously prepared by grilling, baking, blackening, boiling, frying, and pan searing. So we invited three local chefs — all of whom are noted for their seafood skills — to drop by and show us some new ideas.

John Varanese (Varanese, River House, The Levee, Savor), Adam Burress (Ostra, Hammerheads, Game, Migos), and Ken Barkley (Captain’s Quarters Riverside Grille) accepted our invitation and gave us some great tips. We hope you find them useful as well!

(Originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of Food & Dining)

Quality Counts

First and foremost, a great fish dish starts with great fish. So you need to find a fishmonger with a fresh, high-quality selection. There are several excellent fish purveyors in the area, but Gary and Michael Hirsch at Highland Fish Market in Middletown are our go-to guys, with a quick-turning inventory that ensures fresh selections. The Hirsches and Chef John Varanese gave us some guidelines for choosing fresh fish:

• The Hirsches emphasize trusting your nose. The only aromas fresh fish give off should remind you of the sea. If the fish smells “fishy,” or emits a chemical off-odor, it is past its prime.
• Chef Varanese offered advice on whole fish: Get up close and personal and look deep into the fish’s eyes. A fresh fish, recently caught and properly shipped, will have clear, bright eyes. The longer a fish sits in a display case, the cloudier the eyes become.
• Keep your fish purchases chilled until ready to cook. We pack a cooler bag with ice to keep our purchase cold on the way home; this is especially important if your shopping requires other stops.
• Do not overcook fish, especially not delicate white-fleshed fish like cod, flounder or snapper which can quickly become too dry. Be vigilant once your fish is on the heat.

Our three guests explained how and why they developed their recipes. John Varanese said he was thinking of something with fresh, spring flavors that might inspire an early start to the grilling season. Wrapping the fish in a banana leaf concentrates and intensifies the flavors and aromas of the herbs and spices. Banana leaves, which Varanese said add tea-like flavors, are available in Asian groceries, as are green papayas, which are a bit different from under-ripe papayas (though the latter can be used for the slaw as well). “The papaya-and-mango slaw adds fresh acid and tropical notes, providing a pan-Asian palate for the dish,” Varanese explained.

“We’ve been getting a lot of requests for keto-style entrées at Captain’s Quarters,” Ken Barkley said. “So I decided to play around a bit.” Keto is a low-carb, high-fat diet that some people find useful in losing weight. Barkley’s goal for his offering was to find ways to keep flavor and zest without carbs. The popularity of shrimp and grits lent itself to a little experimentation with a finely-riced cauliflower base instead of grits. And Barkley’s zesty, lemony, buttery New Orleans barbecue sauce adds a distinctive accent. “This is a good dish for dinner parties for people who are on a keto diet, with no flavor sacrifices from people who aren’t keeping to keto,” he said.

Several of Adam Burress’s restaurants use custom smokers that he got from a Texas barbecue supplier. For the smoked salmon tacos, you could just buy smoked salmon, but Burress says, “Smoking your own is always better. Use any smoker as long as the temperature doesn’t get above 200 degrees. Smoking too hot can dry out fish fast so stay under 200 degrees for 15-20 minutes and your fish will be great.”

We love to serve our Beet and Strawberry Salad, its light and bright flavors are a wonderful addition to most seafood dishes. The colors are visually appealing and the sweet and earthy flavors compliment a variety of fish and preparations.

For a Southern seafood side we love our Succotash. The word comes from the Narragansett Indian word for broken kernels. You can follow our recipe or use any combination of beans and corn, but our favorite succotash happens when it’s butter bean season, a Southerner’s way of saying it’s time for tender baby limas. The subtle flavors pair wonderfully with flakey fish, firmer fish and also shellfish.

Adam Burress | Ostra, Migo, Hammerheads

Smoked Salmon Taco with Asian Slaw and Cayenne Apple Butter

(Serves 6-8)

Dress a 2-pound salmon fillet with your favorite seasoning and give it a slow temperature smoke, between 175 and 200 degrees, until fork tender and then plate. Flake off meat as desired when building individual tacos.

For the cayenne apple butter:

3 cups apple butter 
½ cup Sriracha sauce
1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly. Salt to taste.

For the ginger sesame slaw:

3 cloves garlic, minced 
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
¾ cup olive oil 
⅓ cup rice vinegar 
½ cup soy sauce 
3 tablespoons honey 
2 tablespoons sesame oil 
2 tablespoons Sriracha 
¼ cup chopped cilantro

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and toss.

Flour Tortilla:

4 cups flour 
2 teaspoons baking powder 
2 tablespoons lard
1½ cups hot water

Add ingredients in a mixing bowl and whisk until a smooth, even texture. Form the dough into small balls and flatten using a tortilla press. Cook in a small frying pan over medium heat.

John Varanese | Varanese, River House, Levee, Savor

Grilled Whole Florida Snapper with Green Papaya-Mango Slaw

(Serves 2)

For the snapper:

¼ cup olive oil
1 large banana leaf
¼ pound fingerling potatoes,
sliced into thin rounds
¼ red onion, peeled and julienned
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 Snapper, approximately
1½ pounds
2 limes, cut into half-moon slices
2 ounces ginger, sliced
½ cup scallions, cut into ½-pieces
1 tablespoon butter
Salt and pepper

Preheat grill to 400°F. Place the banana leaf on a cutting board fully opened. Toss the potatoes with half of the red onion, olive oil and salt and pepper. Pile the mixture in the center of the banana leaf. Make 3 slices on a bias on each side of the fish, angled toward the head. Place a half-moon slice of lime and ginger in each cut. Place cut scallions and butter inside the fish belly. Salt and pepper both sides of the fish. Place fish on top of potato mixture and fold the banana leaf around the fish like an egg roll to seal in all the ingredients. Set on grill potato-side down. Grill for 10 minutes on each side until the fish is cooked through.

For the papaya-mango slaw:

1 mango, peeled and julienned
1 green papaya, peeled and julienned
¼ red onion, peeled and julienned
1 jalapeño, seeded and minced
½ teaspoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
½ teaspoon honey
1 lime, juiced
Salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and toss with the juice of one lime. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve on top of fish.

Ken Barkley | Captain’s Quarters Riverside Grille

Keto New Orleans Shrimp & Grits

(Serves 8)

For the keto smoked Gouda cauliflower grits:

If you’re ricing the cauliflower yourself, Chef Barkley recommends using a food processor with a cheese grater attachment. In the absence of a processor, manually grating does just fine.

6 cups cauliflower, riced
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ cup white wine
¼ cup vegetable broth
2½ cups smoked Gouda, shredded
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 dashes Tabasco sauce
Salt and pepper

Sauté cauliflower and garlic in oil over medium heat for 2-3 minutes, taking care not to brown the garlic. Add wine and cook for an additional 2-3 minutes. Add broth and cook for a further 2-3 minutes. Then add the cheese, garlic powder, onion powder and Tabasco and combine until cheese melts. If the grits are too thick, add more vegetable broth. Salt and pepper to taste and set aside.

For the shrimp:

3 pounds Gulf Shrimp 16-20 count,
peeled and deveined, tail on
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup New Orleans Barbecue
Sauce (see recipe below or use your favorite commercial sauce)

Briefly sear shrimp in a pan over medium-high heat, taking care to leave them in a single layer for even cooking. Add heavy cream and barbecue sauce, stir until they are coated. Reduce heat to medium-low to avoid scorching the cream. Cook for 3 minutes or so, until shrimp are just cooked through.

For the arugula:

4 ounces baby arugula
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper

Sauté baby arugula in a pan with olive oil and garlic until arugula becomes limp. Salt and pepper to taste and set aside.

For the New Orleans shrimp barbecue sauce:
(Makes 3 cups. Extra sauce will keep, covered, up to two weeks. Or freeze for up to 6 months.)

1 cup butter
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup chili sauce
½ cup Worcestershire sauce
5 lemons, sliced
8 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
¼ cup Creole seasoning (such as Zatarain’s or seasoning blends by Emeril Lagasse or Paul Prudhomme)
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon cayenne

Combine all ingredients in a pot and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove lemon slices and set aside.

Place cauliflower grits in the center of the plate. Lay a bed of the arugula around the grits. Arrange 6 shrimp on top of the arugula. Sprinkle bias-cut green onions around the plate (optional) and drizzle with New Orleans Barbecue Sauce.

Tim & Lori Laird 

Recipes reprinted with permission from The Bourbon Country Cookbook by David Danielson and Tim Laird, Agate Surrey, 2018.

Butter Bean Succotash

(Serves 6)

3 tablespoons canola oil
2 cups fresh corn kernels (4 ears), or use frozen corn
1 medium green zucchini, diced
1 yellow bell pepper, diced
1 small red onion, peeled and diced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
2 cups shelled and blanched butter beans or lima beans
1 large red tomato, seeded and diced
½ cup fresh basil, finely sliced
Salt and pepper, to taste

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the corn, zucchini, yellow pepper and onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are bright in color and start to soften, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and beans and continue cooking for 2 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat, transfer the vegetable mixture to a bowl and refrigerate until cool, about 30 minutes. Before serving add the tomato, basil and salt and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature.

Beet and Strawberry Salad with Arugula and Poppy Seed Dressing

(Serves 6)

3 medium red beets
3 medium yellow beets
4 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered
6 ounces baby arugula
3 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
Olive oil, for drizzling
Poppy Seed Dressing (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Place the red beets on a 12-inch piece of aluminum foil, drizzle with the olive oil and wrap into a tight packet. Repeat with the yellow beets to make two big packets. Place the packets directly on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 1 hour, or until the beets are soft when pierced with a knife. Remove from the oven and set aside until the beets are cool enough to touch. Remove and discard the skins and cut the beets into 1-inch cubes.

In a large bowl, combine the beets, strawberries, and arugula and drizzle with the desired amount of dressing. Toss to coat and place on a serving platter or in a glass bowl. Top with the crumbled goat cheese and serve at room temperature.

For the poppy seed dressing:

1 cup sliced strawberries
2 tablespoons sugar
⅓ cup apple cider vinegar
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
Salt and pepper

In a blender, combine the strawberries, sugar, and vinegar. Blend on low, and then, with the machine running, slowly add the oil until all of the oil is incorporated. Pour the dressing into a bowl, stir in the poppy seeds, taste, and add salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to one week. F&D