For David Bancroft, the memories are simply golden as he reflects on childhood years spent along the Gulf Coast fishing with his grandfather.
Those early morning wake-up calls would produce adventures to the beach where the search for sand fleas would take place, bait for the tasty fishing goodness to come. After a few hours of soaking the bait in the surf line, a collection of saltwater pompanos was ready to head for the family dinner table.
Bancroft, of course, is the host of ExMark’s excellent Prime Cuts series on backyard cooking. And as he remembers his southern heritage and the cooking greatness that it fueled, he pairs up in this cooking lesson with longtime hunting, fishing, and cooking brother Rob McDaniel to see what delicious success the pair can whip up next.
No stranger to cooking successes, Bancroft is a four-time James Beard Award semifinalist in the Best Chef South category, Iron Chef Showdown Champion, and owner of the Acre and Bow and Arrow BBQ restaurants all of this not far away from his beloved Auburn University.
McDaniel is known for his cooking successes too, since he’s a five-time James Beard Award semifinalist in the Best Chef South category along with being a longtime executive chef at one of Alabama’s most well-known restaurants, Springhouse. Add in the fact that he once bested Bobby Flay in Iron Chef competition and you know that bringing these two outdoors and cooking enthusiasts together again is about to produce another recipe designed to bring about some backyard cooking greatness!
To create McDaniel’s superb recipe, start with a Gulf Coast favorite, some fresh pompano fillets where the skin is left on. Keep in mind that this recipe also works well with just about any type of oily fish the Gulf can produce from pompanos in the surf to cobia and Spanish or King mackerel caught out deeper around the oil rigs and sunken reefs.
With the fillets in hand, pour a small amount of peanut oil onto them, oiling each side with your fingers. A pinch of salt and some freshly ground black pepper is a good finishing touch before flipping the fillet and repeating the process on the opposite side. One note of caution here from McDaniel is to avoid using too much oil, which can leave a hint of burnt oil flavor on this dish if you overdo it.
After getting the fillets ready, you’ll want to place them skin-side down on the Green Egg grill that Bancroft uses in his backyard kitchen. Note that the grill should be ripping hot, as he likes to say, heated to 600 degrees. Once the fish is on the grill, don’t touch it or reposition it since you want the skin to quickly cook and get nice and crispy.
When the fish has cooked skin-side down for a few minutes—and when the fish gets opaque and has nice white edges to it—you’ll want to flip it and finish it on the other side for a minute or two.
When cooked properly skin-side down, the skin will caramelize and tighten up to a crispy surface that should release easily from the grill’s hot surface. When done correctly here, the fish fillet can be easily flipped with nothing more than a fork being used.
Do note here that while the grill marks add a little bit of visual appeal and help produce the charring flavor, the point of the crispy skin is to properly cook the fish above it. The high heat—which Bancroft notes many top chefs use these days—is designed to cook the meat or fish quickly so that moisture is retained. With lower heat, the cooking process can be slowed enough that moisture is unwittingly drawn out of the dish, leaving it too dry.
After the fish fillet has cooked, let it rest for a few moments while you go to work on the additional portions of McDaniel’s recipe. You’ll want to finely slice up some red onion, putting it into a small metal mixing bowl along with some fresh garlic.
Into that mixture, add the pickled peppers—McDaniel uses aji dulce peppers, Jimmy Nardello peppers and jalapenos—and gently whisk it all together. By the way, Bancroft notes that the pickling brine will break down the onion a little bit, giving the mixture a semi-crunchy texture that combines some sweet heat as well.
Next, ladle the pepper mixture onto a plate. Then put the Gulf Coast favorite, the pompano fillets, onto the pickled peppers and onion. Finally, it’s time for the toasted breadcrumbs to be sprinkled on the top of the fillet, a topping that McDaniel creates from the crumbs of homemade ciabatta bread along with some parsley, some chives, some butter, and a few other spices too.
When this saltwater fish recipe is finished up, the result is a clean-tasting, simple dish that provides dinner guests with some texture and flavor changes along with some smoky, sweet heat goodness that is literally popping with flavor.
Not to mention a few wonderful memories of Gulf Coast fishing adventures made in previous years with your loved ones and friends!
Rob McDaniel’s Pompano with Pickled Peppers Recipe
Video courtesy of Exmark’s Backyard Life
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 20-30 minutes
- Pompano fillets
- Peanut oil
- Pre-toasted breadcrumbs
- Pre-pickled peppers
- Fresh garlic
- Red onion
- To start, clean and fillet your pompano. Apply a light coat of peanut oil, salt, and pepper to both sides.
- Heat your grill to 600 degrees.
- Place the pompano fillets skin-side down on the grill. Allow the fillets to cook until they’re nice and crispy on one side—essentially the whole way through on the skin side—to achieve nice grilled char marks. Once the scales and skin are nice and crispy, flip and allow the flesh side to briefly cook. Then, remove the pompano from the grill and allow it to rest while you prepare the other ingredients.
- Ready your pre-toasted breadcrumbs.
- Ready your pre-pickled peppers. McDaniel uses a variety of in-season peppers— aji dulce, Jimmy Nardello and jalapenos. And, he adds a little fresh garlic and red onion for this recipe.
- Prepare your final dish by lining the bottom of your plate with pickled peppers. Then, place a healthy portion of breadcrumbs on top of your pompano before placing it atop your pickled peppers.