Imagine heading down to the shore at Orange Beach and scooping up enough sand fleas (mole crabs) for a fishing excursion to the Perdido Pass jetties, where all you catch are gafftopsail (gafftop) catfish.
Then imagine taking those gafftops, considered a nuisance fish by most anglers, and heading to Zeke’s Landing to create the winning dish at the eighth annual Alabama Seafood Cook-Off.
That’s basically what Brody Olive, executive chef at Perdido Beach Resort, did last week to claim the top prize at the Alabama Gulf Seafood-sponsored event, where four of the top chefs in Alabama were given an hour to create delectable dishes out of fresh Gulf seafood.
Olive and sous chef Luis Silvestre created “Fishing on the Rocks, the Jetties at Perdido Pass” with gafftop catfish smoked over scrub oak coal with flash-fried mole crabs, Gulf shrimp horseradish cream, pickled purslane and smoked paprika coral tuile.
“I’m kind of surprised,” said Olive, who also won the Cook-Off in 2017. “We just went outside the box and had a little fun with it, pushing the envelope a little bit. We decided whatever happens happens, and it came together.
“To all of the fishermen out there, it’s all about fishing and not necessarily catching. We served gafftop catfish, and there’s some stigma about the fish. Some people throw it back. We took the catfish, cut the ribs out of them and smoked them over some scrub oak. We pickled a little purslane (leafy plant that some people consider a weed) that’s common on the Gulf Coast. Our fish were pretty small, so we cooked up our bait too. We made a shrimp horseradish sauce that we pureed into a nice little foam. Then we had mole crabs, pompano candy, which is like a little softshell crab and added a little crunchy texture to the dish. We added a little smoked black garlic sea salt and some chili flakes.”
Olive, who won $2,500 from the Alabama event, advances to the Great American Seafood Cook-Off in New Orleans this summer.
Cook-Off judges were Jim Smith, founder and executive chef of The Hummingbird Way in Mobile and chairman of the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission; Chris Nelson, president of Bon Secour Fisheries; Susan Benton, a food writer and founder of gulfcoastrestaurants.com; and Jeffrey Compton, 2022 ASCO Champion and partner/executive chef of Armour House in Birmingham.
The dishes were judged in five categories:
- Presentation, General Impression and Serving Methods
- Creativity and Practicality
- Composition and Harmony of Ingredients
- Correct Preparation and Craftsmanship
- Flavor, Taste and Texture
Each category was worth up to 20 points for a total of 100 points.
Sam Adams of (small batch) restaurant in Birmingham took the runner-up prize with her dish of “Mediterranean Summer Meets Birmingham.” It featured seared Gulf red snapper over Gulf crab salad with boiled peanut hummus, cornmeal fried squash, fried capers, saffron beurre l’orange and herb salad.
“The snapper, I just wanted to keep simple to honor how good and fresh our red snapper is,” said Adams, who was assisted by sous chef Brian Dyer. “So, I just did salt and pepper and seared it in a cast iron pan until the skin got crispy. Then I flipped it and finished it with some butter.
“The hummus was made from peanuts from Alabama Peanut Company, and the summer relish was made from local produce. The sauce was a beurre blanc with an orange wine. We had an herb salad with feta cheese for a little Mediterranean flavor.”
Although they didn’t come out on top, the other two dishes were delicious (I did my duty and grabbed a taste).
Laurence Agnew, the executive chef of Jesse’s Restaurant in Magnolia Springs and Fort Morgan, also ventured a little out of the box with his “Summer in the Spring” with dry-aged Gulf swordfish, magnolia-glazed Bayou Cora “nixtamalized” hominy, local summer vegetables with blue crab-stuffed heirloom tomatoes and bourride butter.
“At Jesse’s, we started dry-aging fish, specifically from the Gulf,” said Agnew, who was assisted by sous chef Brooke Ghioto. “We have a great spear fisherman who brings us whole fish every few days. Through trial and error and educating ourselves, we find the swordfish, among many other fish, does well when dry-aged. Swordfish was always a good fish to me, but it never really stood out.
“We dry-age it with the bone and the natural marrow. This one was dry-aged for 10 days, and then we grilled it over binchotan charcoal (used in Japanese cooking) with a little bit of magnolia wood. The fish has a nice unctuous taste with the natural fat of the swordfish. We served that with dent corn from Bayou Cora, which is right down from us in Magnolia Springs and nixtamalized, which means we cooked it in sodium hydroxide, which is a lye or alkaline mixture, to bring out the niacin in the corn and make it tender so you can make fresh masa with it for tortillas and hominy. We had tomatoes we stuffed with blue crab salad. We made a magnolia glaze with leaves from the magnolia in Magnolia Springs. When it goes with the fish and the charcoal, it kind of gives it a nice floral and umami flavor. We’re going to be using magnolia flowers in a couple of desserts at the restaurant. We’re using everything possible from Magnolia Springs and focusing on what’s available in the summer.”
Nicholas Song of The Depot in Auburn prepared an Alabama jumbo blue crab cake with heirloom tomatoes, miso dashi, Meyer lemon quick-pickled cucumber, Alabama royal red shrimp salad, local corn, and chili and cotija aioli.
“Everything in the dish is supposed to complement each other with sweet, savory saltiness and fattiness,” said Song, who was assisted by Morgan McWaters. “The crab is very buttery, very sweet, very rich. The shrimp is unctuous with a nice firm texture. We garnish it with micro greens and cilantro, so you get that really nice fresh taste. The miso dashi is made with kelp, which gives it a very umami flavor and a natural sea salt brininess. The seafood flavor is really going to come out of that broth.
“I’m kind of new to Alabama, so the goal is to use all this great seafood, all that’s local, all that’s fresh. I came from Hawaii, so the seafood is different in Alabama. Eating the freshest seafood from the Alabama Gulf is very inspiring. My executive chef, Scott Simpson, is teaching me about Alabama seafood, and he was the winner at the Alabama Seafood Cook-Off two years ago.”
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.