How to Prepare 'Trash Fish' for the Dinner Table
The negative culinary perception that roughfish receives is largely based on poor preparation and are surprisingly delicious
I’m starting to see a change of attitude among my angling friends. There was a time when having a roughfish like a drum, gar, sucker or eel at the end of their line gave them conniption fits. Despite the excitement they might have enjoyed in catching it, the poor fish was likely to be bashed with a boat paddle or cudgel and tossed on the bank to rot with no consideration for its possible culinary qualities.
That seems to have changed with the popularity of such TV shows as Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Seeing their favorite hosts dining on unusual fare like fish-head curry and fried mullet roe has instilled in my friends a measure of gastronomical courage previously absent. Instead of complaining about the roughfish messing up their fishing, they’re looking at them with hungry eyes and wondering if they might be turned into something good for dinner.
In nearly all cases, the answer is yes. Despite the fact that most so-called “trash fish” are scorned and thrown back by uninformed fishermen, many of these underwater ruffians are surprisingly delicious. The secret lies in using the right preparation and cooking methods to transform an underwater outcast into a meal fit for royalty.
I therefore suggest you don’t play whack-a-mole with the roughfish you catch. Instead, throw them on ice, take them home and try the preparation methods and recipes presented here. You’ll be in for a treat.
One of the most widely mistaken notions about drum is that they’re “full of bones” or simply “not worth eating.” Both contentions are incorrect. Freshwater drum, also known as sheepshead, gaspergous or just ‘gous, are just as delicious as their saltwater cousin, the redfish.
Ice down the fish as soon as they’re caught, then fillet them and trim all the dark reddish flesh from the outer side of each piece. The thick, bone-free pieces of firm, light-colored meat thus produced can be broiled, baked, fried, smoked, canned or made into chowder.
“Poor Man’s Lobster” is one simple drum recipe I often use. Cut the fillets into finger-size pieces, and drop into boiling, salted water. Cook the strips 3 to 4 minutes each, and remove from the water. Sprinkle with salt and lemon juice, and serve with melted butter and cocktail sauce. My dinner guests rave that these are almost as good as crab legs.
Even better is this scrumptious recipe shared by my ‘gou-fishing buddy Mark Spitzer. Try it and see.
Mexican Gou Cocktail
- 1 pound freshwater drum fillets
- 1 (3-ounce) package Zatarain’s or similar crawfish, crab and shrimp boil
- 1/3 cup chopped red onion
- 1/4 cup lime juice
- 2 tomatoes, chopped
- 1 green bell pepper, chopped
- 1 serrano pepper or 2 jalapenos, deseeded, chopped fine
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
- 1-1/2 cups chilled Clamato juice
- 3/4 cup ketchup
- 1/4 cup cocktail sauce
- 1 bunch cilantro leaves chopped
- A few dashes of hot sauce (to taste)
- 3 avocados, peeled, pitted, chopped
Dice the fillets into sugar-cube size chunks and soak in cold water for 15-30 minutes. Prepare the crab boil according to package directions, then toss in the fish pieces. Boil for 5 minutes, covered, then remove from the heat and allow to sit, covered, another 5 minutes. Strain, put in a bowl and chill in the fridge for 1 hour.
Mix the onion and lime juice in a small bowl and allow to stand for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, toss the fish, tomatoes, peppers, salt, pepper in one bowl, and whisk together the Clamato juice, ketchup, cocktail sauce and hot sauce in another bowl. Now mix together all the ingredients from the three bowls, gently fold in the avocado pieces, cover and chill thoroughly. Serve with chips or crackers.
Most gar-fishing articles I’ve read had the same theme: “These fish are fun to catch, but they’re not worth a darn on the dinner table.” Which indicates the authors omitted one pertinent piece of research: they should have cleaned and eaten one. Had they done so, they would have been hugely surprised, for the gar is not only edible but is, in fact, tastier than many other freshwater species.
Next time you catch one, cut off its head and tail with a hatchet, use some tin snips to split the bony hide along the fish’s length, then, wearing gloves to protect your hands, peel the fish from the armored hull and fillet the meat along the length of the backbone as you might cut the loin off a deer. Cut the loins into smaller, eating-size pieces, and give them a try in this classic Louisiana recipe.
- 3 pounds boneless gar meat
- 1 cup bread crumbs
- 1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped fine
- 1/2 cup green onions, chopped fine
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 2 large onions, chopped fine
- 1/2 cup cooking oil
Grind the fish in a meat grinder or food processor. (It’s easier to grind if it’s partially frozen.) Transfer to a large bowl and add the bread crumbs, parsley, green onion, cayenne, black pepper, salt, eggs and half the chopped onion. Mix well and shape into boulettes (balls) a little larger than golf balls. Roll the boulettes in flour while heating the cooking oil in a cast-iron pot or skillet. Brown the boulettes, stirring lightly, then add the remaining chopped onion and 3 cups hot water. Stir and cook slowly for 30-45 minutes. Serve over rice.
Buffalos, Carp and Suckers
These bottom-feeding fish have long been considered delicacies in parts of the South and Midwest. Their flaky white flesh, streaked with dark veins of sweet fat, is flat-out delicious, but the meat is full of tiny Y-bones, and thus requires special preparation before cooking.
To dress one of these fish, first “fleece” the large scales off the skin in a single layer with a sharp knife. Insert the knife just forward of the tail, then working toward the head with short, sawing cuts, remove the scales along the side, leaving the skin intact.
Unless it will be cooked whole, fillet the fish after fleecing it, cutting through the ribs to produce fillets with skin on one side and the ribs attached. Cut the rib section off each piece, and slice between the ribs, creating strips that each contain two or three ribs. Divide the remaining portion of each fillet into two long pieces by cutting lengthwise along the lateral line. Then remove the dark red meat along the lateral line portion of each piece. Score each piece across the grain at 1/8-inch intervals along the entire length, slicing to, but not through, the skin. This virtually eliminates the free-floating Y-bones when the meat is cooked. If you like, cut each scored fillet into smaller, serving size pieces.
Southern Fried Suckers (for use with any of these fish)
- Enough prepared fish to serve your family or guests
- Yellow corn meal
- Lemon pepper spice
- Cayenne pepper
- Peanut oil for frying
Prepare a corn meal fish batter mix in these proportions. For each cup of corn meal, add 1 tablespoon lemon pepper spice, 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper and 1 tablespoon salt. Place the batter mix in a large zip-seal plastic bag, add a few fish pieces at a time and shake to coat. Deep-fry the fish in peanut oil heated to 375 degrees, and cook until the fish flakes easily when tested with a fork.
Eels have a delicate texture and full flavor. They’re excellent smoked, grilled, fried, baked and in soups, and are commonly used in sushi.
A slimy body makes eels a pain to prepare unless you do it right. To avoid getting slimed, place each eel in a container of coarse salt before dressing. To remove the skin, nail the head to a board, cut a ring around the head with a knife, then use pliers to skin it like a catfish.
After skinning, eviscerate the fish and remove the head. Cut in 2-inch pieces and make a slit along the backbone of each piece. This cuts the muscles so the eel won’t jump in the frying pan. It’s also a good idea to parboil eel chunks 2 or 3 minutes before cooking.
One simple way to cook them is to fillet the meat, boil for 30 minutes, drain, season with salt and pepper, then dip in beaten eggs and roll in bread crumbs. Fry for five minutes, then serve with hot spaghetti sauce poured on top. Here’s another great recipe.
- 2 pounds eel, cut in 3-inch pieces
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- Bamboo skewers
Heat olive oil with paprika and dill in a skillet. Remove from heat, add eel pieces and turn to coat with hot oil. Skewer eel pieces through the sides, 4 or 5 pieces per skewer. Cook on a grill rack over hot coals about 7 to 8 minutes per side or until flaky when fork-tested. Brush frequently with oil while grilling. Garnish with more chopped dill.