Amberjack. Bonita. Jack crevalle. Mullet. Porgy. Sardine. Sheepshead. Spanish mackerel.
These are just a few lesser-known, under-loved fish. They’re typically called “trash fish” and are considered by-catch by recreational and commercial fishermen in search of popular species like grouper, American red snapper and tuna. That’s so sad … because they have something special to offer, but folks may not even know about them.
These fish aren’t in high demand, but they’re plentiful in Florida waters, which means they’re available at attractive prices to restaurant owners and consumers. Many professional chefs are capitalizing on their availability, flavor profiles, and lower prices, and are producing creative dishes with them.
Consumers have several options when it comes to enjoying these species: try them at a restaurant, buy them at a seafood market, or even catch one themselves. Ultimately, creating demand for these prevalent species not only creates cash flow for local economies, but also lessens pressure on the fishery and offers us all opportunity to enjoy delicious and healthy seafood at lower prices.
So it all boils down to education: The more we know, the more we can act. Which is why there’s a movement underway to celebrate these fish, give them the attention they deserve, and impart knowledge along the way. It was started by the Chefs Collaborative, an organization consisting of chefs and food professionals who are focused on sustainable food sources.
One of the fun events the organization sponsors is Trash Fish dinners – opportunities for chefs in local communities to create tasty dishes with these species and to share them with diners.
Trash Fish Dinner now an annual event
In Sarasota, Chef Steve Phelps, at Indigenous restaurant, took the lead in 2014 by partnering with Edible Sarasota magazine to host the first Trash Fish Dinner in the city. It was such a success that the team kept going and recently hosted the third annual, sold-out event. More than 150 attendees got to see these whole fish up close and to enjoy dishes created by local chefs who share a passion for sustainability.
Chefs from Mattison’s, The Chiles Group, Indigenous, The Cottage, Made Restaurant, Veronica Fish & Oyster, and Louis Modern all worked together to serve appetizers, five courses, and dessert.
This year, chefs served not only lesser-known fish but also farmed species – those available through U.S. aquaculture efforts – like Copper Shoals red drum, cobia, and sturgeon caviar. Incorporating farmed species into menus also helps to reduce pressure on natural fisheries and provides other sources of fresh, reasonably priced fish.
At this year’s Trash Fish Dinner, menu items included BBQ Amberjack, Lionfish Ceviche, Sturgeon Rilettes, Buttermilk Fried Amberjack With Savory Waffle, Mullet Mousse, Seared Skate Wing in Brown Butter, and Indian-Style Grilled Hogfish.
A new dining experience for some
Each chef introduced his or her dish and shared the inspiration behind it, as well as information about the species. Dishes were served family-style, and there was lots of chatter at each table as diners enjoyed fish they otherwise might never have considered eating. In the end, there were lots of empty plates.
It was amazing to see the creativity behind the dishes, as well as the versatility of each species. For example, lionfish, a gorgeous tropical fish with potentially deadly venomous spines, is an invasive species in Gulf of Mexico and other tropical waters, but once those spines are removed, it offers bright, flaky, mild fillets.
This fish reproduces quickly and has no natural predators, so this is a perfect time to capitalize on its availability and nutritional value. To see it served three ways – as a tasty ceviche, in crunchy tempura, and incorporated into a beautiful summer roll – was a testament to its versatility.
Enjoying these lesser-known species might just eradicate the moniker of “trash fish” and move them closer to the title of “treasured fish”!
Nicole Coudal lives in the Sarasota area and is the author of My Delicious Blog, which showcases recipes using fish she has caught, or produce she has sourced locally. Read more of Nicole’s writing at mydeliciousblog.com.