Mississippi chefs highlight the state’s fresh—and healthful—catches in dishes ranging from shrimp scampi to crab Benedict.
By Liz Barrett Foster
Mississippi has long been known for its crispy, fried catfish, but its proximity to multiple bodies of water means there are many other—some perhaps more healthful—preparations of seafood in the state that chefs, locals and out-of-towners alike enjoy. In fact, the Magnolia State features more than 100 public freshwater lakes and 62 miles of saltwater coastline along the Gulf of Mexico. “A lot of people don’t even realize that Mississippi has a border on the sea,” says Chef Dan Blumenthal, co-owner and head chef of Bravo! Italian Restaurant & Bar in Jackson, Mississippi.
Catfish, blue crab, shrimp and oysters are savored around the state, with the most common coastal finfish being speckled trout and redfish, according to Ryan Bradley, director of Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United in Long Beach. “Mississippi is one of the only states that allows speckled trout and redfish to be caught and sold commercially,” he says. “There’s limited supply, because these fish are also highly sought after for recreational use.”
Many anglers in Mississippi fish recreationally for catfish, but restaurants serve mostly domestic, farm-raised catfish, which has a clean and mild taste. Unfortunately, some consumers consider catfish to be “bottom feeders” and shy away from it. Chef Nick Wallace, co-chair of Share the Gulf and owner of Nick Wallace Culinary in Jackson, says he actively teaches people about the versatility of catfish. “It’s a fish I’ve been eating since I was a baby,” he adds. “We can smoke it, sous vide it — we can do catfish all kinds of ways.”
Redfish is another versatile fish, according to Chef Alex Eaton, owner of The Manship Wood Fired Kitchen in Jackson. Redfish can be fried, smoked, sautéed, broiled or grilled; at The Manship, Chef Eaton prepares what he calls a Gulf redfish “on the half shell,” because one side of the fish’s skin stays on for presentation to the guest. “We fillet the fish, leaving the skin and scales on; season the fish with sea salt, cracked pepper, garlic and olive oil; then roast it in our wood oven,” he says. “The fish stays extremely moist and can be scraped off the hardened skin, much like a baked potato.” Eaton serves the redfish alongside coconut milk-curry spinach, making the dish dairy-free.
Oysters are another popular dish in Mississippi, but the health of oysters in the Gulf and the livelihoods of oyster farmers have been threatened multiple times over the years, including by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and multiple hurricanes, according to Bradley. The current danger they face involves prolonged freshwater exposure, which is causing high oyster mortality rates. To keep oysters available, oyster farmers have been permitted to set up floating cages off the coast of Biloxi, behind Deer Island. “They’re producing beautiful, high-quality oysters,” Bradley says. “It’s a method that’s been successful in other states, but is new to Mississippi.”
Sourcing and Preparing
Chefs Eaton, Blumenthal and Wallace are sometimes able to catch their own fish or collaborate with local fisherman. For the most part, though, they work with seafood suppliers based in New Orleans or Birmingham, Alabama, that have access to Mississippi seafood.
No matter where they acquire the seafood, traceability becomes more important every day. “A lot of the fish we get are in the Gulf Wild program and have a tag attached to them,” Chef Eaton says. “You can find out exactly where the fish was caught, the date it was caught, the captain who caught it, and the boat it was caught on.”
Chef Eaton says he loves to catch, clean and serve a whole fish, often using the bones to make a stock. “I take the fish throats, clean them up and serve them like a seafood chicken wing on the bone,” he says. “The fillets are so fresh that all they need is a little bit of seasoning and a squeeze of fresh lemon.”
A favorite at Bravo! has been the crab-crusted Gulf fish of the day. Blumenthal takes a fish such as cobia, wahoo, amberjack or mahi, and combines herbs, breadcrumbs, Creole mustard, lemon juice and mayonnaise to encrust the top before searing the fillet and finishing it in the oven.
Bravo! also serves its own spin on shrimp scampi: “I sauté shrimp in extra virgin olive oil, garlic and butter, and then add fresh mint and basil and toss it with pasta,” Chef Blumenthal says. “That one’s very Italian.”
Whether taking the boat out for the weekend, calling a fisherman or sourcing from a local supplier, Mississippi chefs embrace fresh, local seafood in the same way they embrace the state’s fresh produce. “Make a fisherman your friend the same way you would a farmer,” Chef Wallace says.