While we all adore fluffy boots and spicy pots of spiked apple cider, I think it’s safe to say warm weather is Wilmington’s first love. Our city’s vibe screams sunshine, shade and seafood, as we celebrate some of the freshest catch around and extraordinary chefs who transform this ocean fare into pure genius on a plate.
I picked three of my favorite seafood dishes and nudged their creators for a peek into their shopping baskets and recipe lists. The best part: Each chef gave me insight on how to achieve something similar in my very own kitchen.
Chef Dean Neff’s fried catfish
Although he just arrived on Wilmington’s restaurant scene two years ago, no one would disagree PinPoint’s Dean Neff is a maestro when it comes to harmonizing an idyllic melody of flavors. By sourcing a combination of his low-country roots and edible childhood memories, customers can taste the passion in every bite of his sensational food.
A particular standout on his New American roster is the fish and grits (a seemingly simple dish when considering what fried fish typically entails). A closer look into the components, however, will show Neff nails the technique of making humble ingredients refined. Catfish haters, beware…
Devour (D): We all know fish and grits is a classic Southern combination. Why did you choose catfish?
Dean Neff (DN): Catfish as an ingredient has in fact come a long way in the past 10 years. Farming practices have become cleaner and have in turn yielded a cleaner taste. At PinPoint we brine the catfish for two hours in a bath with lots of lemon and fresh herbs. We then pat the fish dry and cold smoke it with a blend of apple and pecan wood. Finally, we roll it into great cornmeal, and pan-fry it in a cast-iron skillet. We serve it over Anson Mills white antebellum grits, with seared okra and shaved green tomato slaw. The result is a comfort food that has balance and reminds me of camping in the summertime in Georgia. It has made believers out of the most skeptical catfish haters.
D: When you’re frying fish, is cornmeal-crusted the only way to go?
DN: We use lots of different flours, with lots of different recipes when frying fish. Wondra flour, all-purpose, panko breadcrumbs, tempura. All are great and would be tasty, but I love the contrasting corn textures and flavors when using cornmeal. It’s also so easy!
D: What makes the leek and corn-creamed grits such a perfect sidecar for the fried fish?
DN: It layers varying degrees of roasted corn with creamy contrasts and the crunchy texture of the pan-fried catfish. The leeks and cream in the grits add a backdrop of comforting and expansive allium flavor to these antebellum grits, which are rustic and sweet.
D: If someone couldn’t find leeks, what’s the next best member of the onion family that would achieve a similar flavor?
DN: Using the lighter part of green onions would be a great substitute for leeks in a pinch. I also love using celery root in the same way.
D: What would you swap in for the green tomato slaw to get that acidic crunch, if someone couldn’t find green tomatoes?
DN: You can use any tender, in-season veggies, shaved thinly and tossed with a simple lemon vinaigrette. Think hakurei turnips, fennel, baby carrots, sugar snaps, celery, radish, or any other tender-enough-to-eat-raw veggie.
D: The lemon brown butter brings a whole other level of nutty flavor. Would any other citrus butters work well here? Any other sauce suggestions for folks at home who want to change it?
DN: I would recommend a vinaigrette-type sauce here to add lots of brightness to the rich and creamy theme of the grits. Even a large lemon squeeze would do the trick.
The idea of the lemon brown butter is to balance the butter with the lemon juice (acid). Think vinaigrette: one-part acid (lemon juice) to three-parts oil (butter). The brown butter requires stirring before using to distribute the lemon juice throughout the butter.
D: Where does the fish you use in the restaurant come from, and why did you choose to source it from the particular farm and/or fisherman?
DN: We source our catfish from Carolina Classic Catfish, which is a North Carolina-based catfish farm that has created a better way of farming catfish. CCCF brings restaurants the most consistent and cleanest tasting catfish I have ever eaten. They do not use pesticides or antibiotics, and take a lot of care in their practices.
D: If a home cook wanted to prepare something similar to this dish in their kitchen, what advice would you give them for making something comparative but not too complex?
DN: The recipe is so simple, it can be made by cooks at any level. You can always leave off the brining and smoking part of the fish preparation. You could also just make the grits without the leek aspect and finish with a little butter and cream. It’s basically just making grits, and pan-frying catfish with some sliced green tomatoes and a squeeze of lemon.
D: What’s another good sub-in for catfish that fries up nicely?
DN: Flounder, whiting, rainbow trout, spot-tailed trout, redfish, or even bluefish would all be acceptable substitutes. Just make sure and find super fresh fish!
1 ½ gallons water
1 c sugar
2 c kosher salt
Large handful of fresh thyme, bruised with the back of a knife
10 sprigs of fresh dill
3 sprigs fresh oregano
4 cloves of garlic
8 bay leaves
1 tbsp whole black peppercorns
½ tbsp juniper
2 gallons of ice
2 lemons, sliced
Bring the water, sugar, salt, thyme, garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns, and juniper mixture to a boil in a large stock pot. Stir well to make sure the salt and sugar are dissolved completely. Remove from the heat, and add the ice, lemon, oregano, and dill. Chill to 38°F or lower before using.
Note: Different meats take different amounts of time for the brine to take effect. A large chicken breast needs a full 24 hours, whereas the catfish fillets only require two hours of brine time. Optional: Cold smoke with apple-wood for 3 to 5 minutes.
½ c coarse white grits
1 ½ c water
½ c whole milk
¼ c heavy cream
½ c minced lighter leek section
Salt and pepper
In a small and nonreactive (non-aluminum) sauce pot, add the water and grits. Over low heat, bring to a gentle simmer, and cook slowly without boiling. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pot to prevent scorching. Cook the grits to the variety’s determined time, and finish with salt and pepper.
In a small and nonreactive sauce pot, add milk, heavy cream, and minced leek. Season this mixture with salt. Simmer over low heat until the celery root is tender. Carefully, puree in a blender until smooth (with a heavy towel over the top to prevent a dangerous and hot explosion).
Marry the grits and the leek puree to fortify the grits. Be careful to not dilute the consistency too much. If too much puree is added, put it back on the heat to gently reduce. Taste for seasoning, reserve and hold warm.
Green Tomato Slaw
2 large green tomatoes, cleaned and finely shaved, with a mandolin slicer, or use a sharp knife to fine julienne and omit the core, which you can save for soups or stocks
½ medium red onion, finely sliced
1 tbsp minced dill or fennel fronds
2 tsp lemon juice
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
½ tsp kosher salt
¼ tsp lemon zest
Mix together all ingredients and keep for up to 5 to 7 days chilled in the fridge.
Lemon brown butter
¼ pound whole butter, lightly softened
2 tbsp lemon juice (or Meyer lemon juice)
In a nonreactive pot (that holds 10 times more volume than the butter), gently heat the whole butter. As the butter cooks, brown milk solids will form on the bottom of the pot. With a spoon or whisk, continuously scrape the bottom of the pot while the butter cooks. Keep the heat low and watch the butter turn into a golden brown.
Note: This next step requires some care. Realize that as you add the lemon juice, the butter will bubble. You can reduce it from bubbling over by letting the butter cool for 30 to 60 seconds, and by whisking as you slowly add the lemon juice.
Remove the pot from heat and carefully whisk in lemon juice. Season lightly with salt and remember to stir well before using.
4 brined catfish fillets
2 c cornmeal, seasoned lightly with kosher salt and pepper
¼ c corn or peanut oil
Preheat oven to 400°F. Pat the catfish fillets dry with a clean towel and press firmly into the seasoned cornmeal. Heat the cast-iron skillet over medium flame and add the corn or peanut oil. The oil should shimmer when it’s ready for the fillets. Carefully add the catfish fillets one at a time. Gently brown on the first side and flip.
Pour off excess oil out of the skillet and place in the preheated oven for 8 to 10 minutes. Serve the catfish immediately out of the oven, making sure you have a dry towel as the handle will be hot!)
Serve on top of the celery grits, top with the green tomato slaw, and drizzle the lemon brown butter over top.
Cape Fear Seafood Company
Owner Evans Trawick’s fresh catch saltimbocca
There’s a reason Cape Fear Seafood Company consistently crowns locals’ lists for having some of the most sublimely prepared cuisine in the area. Chef and owner Evans Trawick’s modern take on the land-and-sea grill elevated the Port City’s culinary culture when it hit shore in 2008 in Monkey Junction. Since, they’ve expanded to Porters Neck and have a Leland eatery coming soon.
CFSC’s broad, approachable selection covers everything from beer-battered fish-and-chips, to crab-covered crispy risotto cakes, to a hand-cut grilled ribeye. Of course, the notorious showstopper is the highly renowned, rich-as-can-be shrimp and grits, enriched with smoky Applewood bacon, mushrooms, and low-country cream sauce. For me, though, it’s the fresh catch saltimbocca that makes this eatery a frontrunner in the regional seafood game.
Devour (D): Most folks I’ve spoken with say they’ve had the fresh catch saltimbocca prepared with grouper, and it’s the best they’ve ever had. Is grouper your favorite fresh catch for this dish?
Evans Trawick (ET): It’s one of my favorites, along with striped bass and trigger fish.
D: What would you recommend if grouper is out of season and someone wanted to make it at home with fresh, locally caught fish?
ET: If grouper can’t be found, and it is getting more difficult to source it for a reasonable price, I think striped bass or tilefish makes an excellent substitute. Almost any white, flaky fish will do, but these are some that we think work well.
D: What’s the purpose of the goat cheese addition to this dish? Is it for the tangy flavor of the cheese, the creaminess?
ET: It adds another dimension to the dish—more depth. By adding the cheese, you get a tangy contrast to an otherwise savory dish.
D: If a home cook wanted to prepare something similar to this in their kitchen, what advice would you give them?
ET: Other than the sauces, this is a very basic dish. Don’t shy away from this or any seafood. Our number one rule is to not overcook it or over complicate it. The saltimbocca is one of the more complex dishes on our menu, as far as its flavor profile goes, but that shouldn’t deter the home cook from experimenting with seafood.
D: How is the fish prepared for this dish?
ET: The fish itself is baked, and the bed of spinach, tomatoes and mushrooms is lightly sautéed.
D: Obviously, you can tell by sight when the prosciutto is crisp, but how can you tell that the fish is perfectly cooked?
ET: If you’re cooking this at home, the easiest way may be to use a probe thermometer and make sure the internal temperature reaches 145°F.
D: Why prosciutto instead of bacon or pancetta as the salty pork component here?
ET: The prosciutto adds an earthy almost floral taste to the dish, where both bacon and pancetta have a little too much fat—and bacon is too smoky.
D: What other fishes would pair well with crispy pork flavor?
ET: Pork really goes with anything, right? Scallops obviously go well with pork (think bacon-wrapped), but we use pork in several of our signature dishes. Applewood-smoked bacon in our Cape Fear shrimp and grits, prosciutto in the saltimbocca, and Andouille sausage in our shrimp and scallop jambalaya.
D: The demi-glace on the plate is such a beautiful contrast of colors. What’s an easy swap-in for the home cook if they didn’t know how to prepare this sauce?
ET: You can take beef broth and reduce it by half. Use a cornstarch slurry to thicken it just a bit and swirl in a few cubes of butter to get the same effect as demi-glace.
D: The lemon beurre blanc brings the whole dish together. Why did you choose that instead of another classic French sauce?
ET: I think beurre blanc is the best sauce for almost any seafood option. Its simple, velvety texture and richness (along with the slight tartness from the lemon and wine) really bring out the best in seafood.
D: Where do you source the fish for your restaurant, and why did you choose it from said farm or fisherman?
ET: The majority of our local fish comes from Steve Strouse of Steve’s Seafood in Brunswick County. I have known Steve for several years and really enjoy working with him to source our fin fish. We have worked with, and continue to work with, multiple suppliers, but he understands we are looking for quality, freshness and anything unique to serve in the restaurants.
Lemon Beurre Blanc
½ clove chopped garlic
½ minced shallot
Juice of a lemon
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Sprig of fresh thyme
Pinch of salt
1 ½ c white wine
3/4 c heavy cream
½ stick butter, cubed
Add all ingredients to a heavy sauce pan and reduce the wine by half. Add heavy cream and reduce by half again over medium heat. Once the sauce has reduced, remove it from the heat and immediately add butter. Whisk it in until the sauce has come together.
Note: Use a chinois to pour the sauce into another container—removing the added ingredients, which you can drape over your dish or just drink. Either way, it will really make your day.
Co-owner Matt Piccinin’s lobster roll
Blend together two-parts surf’s up vibe, one-part seafood steam pot, and a Bloody bivalve shot, and the recipe for Shuckin’ Shack’s success is apparent. It’s a vacationer’s dream come true—even for natives. Just because we live at the beach doesn’t mean we take fried shrimp baskets and fruity cocktails for granted. The beauty of the islandy joint (located downtown, in Carolina Beach and at Topsail) is Shuckin’ Shack’s ability to keep customers swinging through their screen door no matter the weather. Shuckin’ Shack is scented with Old Bay, serves up seafood buckets for days, and faithfully offers specials on items like fresh, buttery clams and frosty pints. Regulars, however, don’t even bother with a menu. It’s lobster roll or bust.
I sat down with co-founder Matt Piccinin to get the scoop on what makes Shuckin’ Shack’s spin on the New England classic a top-selling item.
D: The dish obviously has a New England influence with a NC twist. What gives it the NC flair?
Matt Piccinin (MP): We were thinking about Carolina mustard, like a good old Carolina BBQ.
D: I gotta ask: Why the mustard sauce?
MP: Some lobster-roll recipes call for mustard in the lobster salad. We felt like adding it on the top gives the dish a more casual feel—like eating a hot dog at a baseball game!
D: Are most people turned off or intrigued by the addition of the mustard?
MP: We get mixed responses. It is definitely a conversation starter. We also offer it on the side if mustard sauce is not your thing!
D: The mustard sauce is a “spicy mustard remoulade,” really. Is it essentially spicy mustard and mayo? What makes it a remoulade?
MP: It’s basically the simplest remoulade you can make. Obviously, mayo based with spicy mustard and spices. We wanted to add the remoulade without overpowering the dish. Our theme is keep it simple!
D: Some lobster salads are made with too much mayo. Shuckin’s seems to have the perfect amount of creaminess, but with the lobster being showcased front and center. What’s the secret? Is there any mayo?
MP: There is a small amount of mayo. The secret is to let the lobster do the talking. The sauce complements the lobster not the other way around.
D: Where does the lobster come from that you use in your restaurants, and why did you choose to source it from there?
MP: We always source our seafood from reputable vendors and fisheries that practice sustainable fishing. The lobster at the Shack is usually from Canada or Northeast US.
D: Would this be an easy dish for a novice to tackle?
MP: This dish is simple and uses very few ingredients. A little mayo, a little butter and a few spices!
D: How is the lobster meat prepared before it becomes “lobster salad”? Steamed?
MP: The lobster is steamed, cooled and drained of excess water.
D: Any other topping suggestions for folks making this at home?
MP: Some remoulade recipes call for pickle or relish. I think it would be a fun addition to the dish.
D: The roll is perfectly buttered and toasted. Any other suggestions for a lobster roll vehicle if someone couldn’t find those nice big split buns?
MP: We offer a lettuce wrap in our restaurants to customers who prefer not to eat bread. The crunchy lettuce is a good complement to the salad.
D: Shuckin’ is known for oysters and fried seafood. Why the lobster roll instead of just fried shrimp baskets and fish tacos? Does the chef and owner have New England roots?
MP: The lobster roll was a suggestion from a group of Red Socks fans that would come in and watch the games. They were all New England natives, and we felt we had to create a dish just for them. Little did we know at the time it would become our best-selling sandwich.
D: Can you give me either a recipe for a component of this dish or a recipe idea for how someone could tweak this in their own kitchen (like a simplified spicy remoulade sauce)?
MP: We keep our recipes a secret, but the key to any great seafood dish is to serve high-quality seafood and don’t dress it up too much.