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AWF cook-off draws crowd on Gulf Coast

The scene at the Blue Gill Restaurant in Baldwin County provided hope that Alabama is returning to some sort of normalcy after a long period of COVID-19 restrictions.

The Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF) Gulf Coast Wild Game Cook-Off, the first in two years, attracted a crowd to the venue on the Causeway to taste a variety of wild game dishes.

Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Commissioner Chris Blankenship is a big fan of the Cook-Offs and happy to see their return.

“I love the wild game cookoffs,” said Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “We are so blessed with game, fish and fowl in Alabama, and it is great to see people put their personal culinary touches on this bounty to create some unbelievably delicious dishes.”

The problem for the competing cooking teams in this year’s Cook-Off was keeping up with the demand as the crowd scarfed down dishes in three categories – game, fowl and fish.

Fortunately, I was among the nine judges who sampled the dishes and had to decide on a list of winners based on taste and originality. It was not an easy task.

In the game category, National Land Realty’s team scored the top spot with their Peach Venison Meatballs. The venison meatballs were simmered in a peach sauce with Conecuh sausage. Venison sliders took second and third in game with the Hen Hunters’ Sliding into Paradise taking the runner-up slot and Hooks Lane in third with its Hellcat Slick Head Sliders.

In the fowl division, the Sweet Heat Quail Poppers by Controlled Burn prevailed. The thin-sliced quail breasts were rolled with cream cheese and jalapeno slices in the middle and then wrapped in bacon and basted with a honey hot sauce before being seared over hot coals. Second place went to Tensaw Delta Waterfowl’s Seared Duck over Collards, and Dale Inc.’s Dontons took third.

The fish division provided category winners and the overall champ. Fairhope Fish House’s Swordfish Pastrami Reuben took the division and overall competition. Eastern Shore Ace Hardware’s Blackened Snapper with Cream Sauce took second, while Hiller Systems’ Causeway Catfish Gumbo was third. The Fairhope Fish House team advances to next year’s state cook-off finals.

The Swordfish Pastrami Reuben recipe was graciously shared in meticulous detail by Chef David Ramey of Red or White Wine and Gourmet Center in Fairhope.

“I had been thinking about treating a whole side of swordfish as if it were pastrami, and this was a great opportunity to go ahead with it,” Ramey said. “Brine it, rub it with cracked coriander, black pepper and garlic, then slow smoke it. I imagined the whole product from a day-boat sword prepared this way should give a meaty texture that will hold up to slicing, creating layers of sublime smoked, spiced freshness true to the sword’s flavor.

“After going over the details and seeing the reaction on Dustin’s (Bedgood of Fairhope Fish House) face I knew we were good to go and had the chance to make something delicious. All the props to Dustin for providing the freshest swordfish a chef like me can get his hands on.”

Fortunately for those at the cook-off, Bedgood had landed a 200-pound swordfish just days before the event. Ramey took the prime cuts near the collar off the fish and dropped them in a brine. The fish was pulled out of the brine the next day, seasoned with Ramey’s special spice mix and allowed to soak up the flavors overnight. On Sunday, Ramey placed the fish on his smoker over alder wood, which he likes because of its subtle flavor. He smoked the meat at 200 degrees for two hours, turning the fish every 30 minutes and adding more alder wood chips until the internal temperature of the fish reached 145 degrees. After smoking, he wrapped the fillets tightly in plastic wrap and dropped them in an ice-water bath for 15 minutes.

Ramey said the key is having fresh swordfish, whether you catch your own or buy it from a trusted fish house. Cut or ask for a swordfish loin about 12 inches in length and 2 inches thick.

Before the competition, Ramey baked caraway focaccia bread, prepared the slaw and made remoulade to top the sandwich.

Ramey’s delicious Swordfish Pastrami Reuben recipe follows:

Swordfish Pastrami

5 lbs swordfish

Brine

1 gallon water

½ cup kosher salt

½ cup brown sugar

¼ cup whole black peppercorns

¼ cup whole coriander seeds

1 head of garlic, smashed

2 bay leaves

1 tbsp red pepper flakes

2 whole cloves

5 allspice berries

In a two-gallon bucket add water, sugar and salt. Using a whisk, mix until all sugar and salt have dissolved.

Mix all dry spices and toast in a sauté pan for 2-3 minutes until they become aromatic. Add to the water mixture.

Allow mixture to sit at room temperature for at least two hours or overnight and pour over swordfish.

Brine swordfish loin in the refrigerator. For a 2-inch loin allow to brine for 24 hours.

Spice Rub

1 cup black peppercorns

1 cup coriander seed

1 cup granulated garlic

Coarsely grind black peppercorns and coriander; combine with granulated garlic.

Rub each loin with spice mix and allow to sit for 24 hours.

Slaw Dressing

2 cups apple cider vinegar

½ cup honey

½ cup whole grain or brown spicy mustard

1 yellow onion

1 tbsp red pepper flakes

Salt and pepper to taste

Add all ingredients to a bowl and mix until combined.

Slaw

1 head green cabbage

1 bunch green onions

1 tbsp salt

4 cups dressing

Thin-shave cabbage and green onion, place in a bowl.

Add dressing and salt to cabbage mix and allow to sit for 15 minutes.

Creole Remoulade       

4 egg yolks

½ cup whole grain mustard

1 cup diced dill pickles

¼ yellow onion

4 cloves garlic

4 tbsp blackening seasoning

4 tbsp hot sauce (Louisiana or Crystal)

1/3 cup apple cider vinegar

1 qt canola oil

Salt and pepper to taste

In a food processor, add egg yolks, mustard, pickles, onion, garlic, blackening seasoning, hot sauce and apple cider vinegar.

Puree until smooth. As you process, slowly drizzle in oil to make sauce and season with salt and pepper.

Place in container and use on everything.

Caraway Focaccia

4 cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp kosher salt

2 tsp instant yeast

¼ cup ground caraway seeds

2 cups water

1 cup (about) olive oil

Whisk together flour, salt, yeast and ground caraway.

Add the water and mix until combined.

Coat a clean bowl (or Tupperware) with olive oil and place dough in. Use a small amount of olive oil to coat the top of the dough.

Cover with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator overnight.

Take ½ cup of olive oil and pour into cast iron pan.

Remove dough from refrigerator and punch down.

Place punched-down dough into oiled cast iron pan, pushing the dough to the edges of the pan (doesn’t have to be perfect).

Wrap cast iron pan in plastic wrap and return to refrigerator to sit overnight again.

Remove cast iron pan from refrigerator, keep wrapped and allow to sit for one hour at room temperature.

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Remove plastic wrap from cast iron pan, pour ¼ cup of olive oil on top of dough, and bake for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, rotate pan and place in oven for another 10 minutes. After the 10 minutes, the dough should be golden brown. Allow to cool.

To prepare the Swordfish Pastrami Reuben, Ramey said to cut the bread into ½-inch slices and top with a slice of swordfish about 3/8-inch thick. Top the swordfish with slaw and smother in the creole remoulade. He said if you’re feeling fancy, top with a skewered baby pickle and some sliced green onion tops.

Ramey said the team at the AWF Cook-Off competition stayed busy keeping up with the stream of attendees grabbing the Reubens, but it provided a great deal of satisfaction.

“The rest was having fun with the crowd and taking pleasure in watching their faces as they went from, ‘What is that?’ to ‘Wow, that’s good,’” he said. “Don’t be intimidated by the recipe’s length. Take it one step at a time over a few days.

“I hope y’all have as much fun as I did creating this delicious sandwich.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.