Growing up in Florida with the warm Atlantic ocean in my backyard was the best possible environment for a kid, except when it came to dinner. I flat refused to savor its bounty when it was served on my plate. This delicacy, fresh from the salty sea, was a near-daily offering and I would have no part of it. Eighteen years of no.
Then I went to college, an hour and some change from my beloved playground. I craved the salt, missed having sand between my toes. I longed for my mom’s home cooking and forgot all about her spectacular fish dishes. I craved home.
When my older sister moved to the Virgin Islands, I couldn’t wait to visit her. Independent college student, going to the Caribbean! I invited my surfer boyfriend/now husband, and off we went to ‘America’s Paradise’ for a Spring Break getaway. Every day adventure and a return to home cooking. It was such a treat to eat ‘real food’ for a change.
One night my sister and her husband offered to treat us to dinner out to their favorite little restaurant, The Fishnet.” On our way there, I wondered if I would let my guard down and give fresh fish another try. It had been a few years since my mom had tried to force feed me. Maybe this was the time?
We entered the quaint fresh air eatery with a fishnet draped above, serving as a roof. We were seated at a four-top overlooking the sparkling sea. Paradise. The waiter in his island t-shirt and tattered ankle-length jeans served us tropical drinks as I ogled the plates passing by. “That looks delicious! I’m having THAT!” I decided. It was the house specialty, the day’s freshest catch, completely encrusted in a sheath of spices. “Do you even like fish?” my sister asked.
At that moment, I completely got swept up in the ‘when in Rome’ phenomenon and placed my order. “I’d like the fresh catch, blackened,” I said, feeling incredibly grown up. No one was there cajoling me, mom wasn’t there forcing me. This was my decision and it felt really good.
Still smoking hot from its cast iron skillet, this gorgeous, crispy black filet was elegantly delivered before me. Cracking my fork through the aromatic crust, I took the first bite. Tender, flaky, crunchy, spicy. Delicious. From that moment, I realized that I had been missing out my whole life. I mentally apologized to my mom, one of the best cooks on earth, for all those years of rejection.
Returning home for a summer visit, I asked mom what she was planning for dinner. “I have some fish,” she said apologetically. My eyes lit up. “Where’s your iron skillet?”
Looking ahead to an upcoming trip home to the coast, I offer you a taste of fresh fish that is sure to convert you! How sad that when I fell in love with fresh fish, I also moved far away from the coast. Lucky for us in Charleston, we can head to Joe’s Fish Market for really great fish and service to match.
Blackened Mahi Mahi
Most firm-fleshed fish work well in this preparation. At Joe’s, the mahi mahi came highly recommended. It cooked up perfectly! Though commercial ‘blackening’ spice blends are available, they often contain a lot of salt. I prefer to blend my own.
- 2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 3/4 teaspoon coarse salt
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 4 four to six ounce skinless firm fleshed fish filets (halibut, salmon, mahi mahi work well)
Heat the oven to 375. Mix the paprika, thyme, salt, cayenne, and garlic powder together in a small bowl. Transfer the mixture to a large plate or pie pan. Brush the fish on both sides with the olive oil. Carefully dip the filets into the seasoning mixture, turning to coat each side.
(If using smaller filets, you may have some spice mixture remaining--stir it into the liquid for cooking rice or quinoa, or discard if not using right away)
Heat a large cast iron skillet(12-inch) over medium-high heat. When the skillet just starts to smoke, add the filets and cook for 2 minutes. Carefully turn the filets over and transfer the skillet to the oven and finish cooking for about 5-7 minutes--the fish will feel just-firm when pressed at the center. (Cooking time will vary depending on oven and thickness of fish).
Serve with Fruit Salsa (recipe follows)
If I was in our Florida backyard, I’d grab some mangoes for this salsa. In West Virginia summers, I pick fresh peaches. Pineapple works in the off-season.
- 2 cups chopped fresh fruit
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1 small Roma tomato, chopped
- 1/4 red bell pepper, finely chopped
- 2 green onions, chopped
- 1/2 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped (or to taste)
- 1 tablespoon fresh chopped cilantro
Toss the fruit with the lemon juice in a medium bowl. Add the chopped tomato, bell pepper, green onions, jalapeno pepper, and cilantro. Stir gently to combine. Serve with the fish.