Food for Thought

In Search of the Snapper

graysnappersA tasty tale of the savory snapper.

By Laura Adzich-Brander

Sitting down to coffee with a local fisherman, I innocently asked, “Is there a chance of going snapper fishing this week?” With a twinkle in his eye, the reply came back, “Just what snapper are we talkin’ about? There’s Red Snapper, Gray Snapper, Black Snapper, Mutton Snapper . . .” and the list went on. “And they aren’t all found in the same place.”

The snapper is actually a large family of perciform fishes, a group that consists of approximately 40% of all fish, and are considered the largest order of those that have backbones or spinal columns. In fact, they belong to the ray-finned fish, which are made up of over 7,000 different species of varying shapes and sizes! However, only about 100 of those species are recognized as actual snapper. All find their home in the tropical and subtropical regions of all oceans, yet some enter into fresh water to feed.

Snapper are recognized by their sloped profile and their spiny dorsal fin; their bodies are fairly narrow in depth when viewed head-on. All have short, sharp, needle-like teeth, and several varieties also have prominent upper canine teeth. This is due to the fact that they feed on crustaceans, animals with a stiff exoskeleton, or other fish. There are also a few that are plankton-feeders. The most commonly known, the Red Snapper, can grow up to a metre in length.

Donnie Killom, the eco-tour manager at Big Blue Unlimited, explained that a snapper’s life begins in the grass beds of the lagoon where eggs are laid and then come of age amongst the roots of the Red Mangrove tree. Thriving in the intertidal zone along the south side of the Caicos Islands, the Red Mangrove is the only mangrove species that utilizes a prop root system, which together with the shallow water, keep the larger predators at bay, producing a sanctuary for juvenile fish to spend their formative years before venturing out to the reef.

In the Turks & Caicos, it is the people of South Caicos (“The Big South”) that have continued with the tradition of fishing as their livelihood. It is considered by many as the heart of the fishing industry today, and has been for almost a century.

Mr. Lewis Cox has made his living from the sea for over 50 years. Originally from Provo, he migrated to South Caicos after the hurricane of 1945 wiped out his family’s home along with many others’-and also carried to sea, the boat that held his older brothers who were fishing, never to return home again. The Coxes packed up what was left and headed over to South instead of rebuilding on Provo, given that “all there was in those days was fishin’ and it was far easier off South than back here.  Unless you wanted to work salt . . .”

There they could drop a line in off the docks or anywhere along the shoreline or put down a trap to snap up the fish. “You didn’t have to use a boat,” Lewis recalls. Conch could be scooped up in shallow waters, lobsters were plentiful. And from South Caicos, men plied the waters back and forth to Haiti, trading fish for fresh fruits and vegetables that could not be grown on the more arid terrain of the Turks & Caicos.

When Lewis turned 17, he headed to the Bahamas to make some money “cuttin’ pine.” That only lasted a couple of weeks before he decided it was definitely not for him and thought he would head for home. But he only made it to Nassau where he was picked up to do contract work in the US. He was chosen from a crowd of many because he looked like he could “work hard.” And that he did for five years, following the seasons while harvesting pole beans, pigeon peas, apples, tomatoes, celery and cane – staying at most eight weeks in any one place.

With no telephones to keep regular communication with folks back home, it came as a shock one day when he received a message. It seemed that his ma and brother-in-law had sunk their boat off shore. With only their heads above water, they waited to be rescued for hours on end. When Lewis heard this, he told his boss, “Fix my time ’cause I’m goin’ home.”

hefty-snapperHe began to build his future, relying on the ocean’s bounty. Where he collected conch and fished from the shore, Lewis gradually reclaimed land and built a fishery, along with several other businesses that service the community. And when asked about his best day of fishing, his smile broke into a wide and wonderful grin. “Fishin’ grounds were so much more plentiful when I was a young man. I remember a day when I went out with Patrick and brought home 2,300 lobster in one day by hookin’ em with a toss. The boat was so full that the lobsters were jumpin’ out and there was barely enough room for me. That’s what we used to do.” Hard work, considering that the toss is simply a stick with a loop on the end that is slipped over the lobster.

Many folks still make their living on the water, but times have changed. Smaller boats are now necessary when fishing for Black, Gray, Yellowtail, Pot and Mutton Snappers out in the shallower waters, either between the reef and shoreline or out over the shoals. Much larger boats with more advanced gear head into deep water for the Red Snapper, found in depths of up to 450 metres. They say, “Dem are considered the real snapper.”

Chris Stubbs of Bite Me Fishing Charters asks that anyone wishing to fish for snapper give a boat captain advance notice. A boat needs to be specifically set up for it and, if they’re fishing for Red Snapper, a deep-sea boat is necessary.

If your mouth waters at the thought of fresh fish on your plate, your best bet is to head off to a local restaurant. Their owners have personal connections with boat captains to ensure that they “snap up” whatever comes in from the sea. Their demand is much smaller than that of Provo’s Grace Bay restaurants; these tourist-oriented establishments most often buy abroad where their source is more consistent. (Of course fresh fish is not always guaranteed in the local haunts either, as rougher seas and Sunday church services can keep the boats at anchor.)

Horse-Eye Jack’s is a popular beachfront restaurant located in the charismatic community of Blue Hills. Head Chef Kirk Scott offers fresh snapper whenever he can get his hands on it, most often from fishermen out of South Caicos. “It’s a fish that is done in a variety of ways local-style,” he explains. “If you grill it, the layers of the fish become exaggerated, flaky. The alternate ways of preparation produce a softer, more tender consistency.” Restaurants prefer to use Red Snapper since the larger the fish, the less bone there is to deal with. The Pot Snapper is the smallest and often deep fried in its entirety.

There is a myriad of ways to prepare the fish, all utilizing the various ingredients and implements that have been native to this country over the decades. Of the various renditions, Kirk says, “Steamed is to sauté carrot, onion, tomatoes and okra to begin. The fish is then seared in butter and added to the vegetables in a pan with a little water. It’s covered with a tight lid and left to steam for 5 to 10 minutes before serving. ‘Stew’ fish begins with the same vegetables as before, the fish pan seared a little longer. Butter is melted to the stage of being almost burned when flour and a dollop of tomato paste are mixed in to form a roux, (elders say, ‘browning the flour.’) The vegetables and fish are then added with a little water and cooked for 5 to 10 minutes, but this time with the lid slightly cocked to let a little steam escape. For souse, in a pot, you’d throw in a piece of fish, potato, carrot, green onion, a lick of vinegar, lime juice and water, and then boil it all to a broth. Drinking this concoction gives your body a real boost! These dishes are often served with johnnycake, a heavy, slightly sweet quick bread.”

Kirk continues, “Snapper is also fried. Lime juice is added to local ‘goat pepper’ or scotch bonnet pepper crushed together with salt to create a marinade. Enough oil is added to a pan to float the fish as you would to deep fry, brought to temperature and then the fish is fried until its flesh is ‘milk white.’ In grilling, the fish is first marinated with lime, salt and black pepper. Before popping it on the grate, the fish is coated with a dash of oil to stop it from sticking. Last, but not least, snapper can also be baked. This style includes cut-up vegetables, fresh thyme, salt and pepper, all mixed in with a bit of soft butter to stuff into the fish with fresh lime drizzled over the top. It is wrapped in a foil pouch and cooked over an open fire from 10 to 25 minutes depending on the heat. The lower the temperature, the longer the time, which allows more intense marinating to bring out the flavors.”

In a restaurant, these dishes are most commonly served with macaroni and cheese. Locally, there could be a bit of onion and red pepper thrown in, fried plantain, okra ‘n’ rice, or peas ‘n’ rice. Rice dishes are often prepared with a pork base or have pigtail, salt beef or ham skin added.

With development bringing a more diversified population, snapper preparation can take on an ethnic twist.  For instance, at Pilipino Lutong Pinoy Restaurant (on Leeward Highway, east of Price Club) owner/manager Alberto Araojo’s favorite snapper dish is Manila Sweet and Sour Fish. A small, whole red snapper is deep fried to create a crispy skin and tender flesh before being smothered in a sautéed concoction of chopped carrots, red pepper, green pepper, pineapple, onion, ginger and minced garlic to which brown sugar, white vinegar, soy sauce, salt and water is added. The whole fish is presented surrounded by fresh red and green pepper, sliced fresh tomato and lemon wedges and served with jasmine rice.

Within Providenciales’ north shore tourist hub, there are a number of fine dining, five-star restaurants with chefs that have years of culinary training. These establishments go to great lengths to have the very best on hand, with fish often flown in fresh several times a week to fulfill their patrons’ wishes. Lauren Callighan, head chef of O’Soleil Restaurant at The Somerset on Grace Bay, has spent significant energy finding the perfect combinations to enhance the flavor of snapper for her clientele.

The fish of the day at O’Soleil is always exquisitely prepared with ingredients from all over the world. Lauren has created a Red Snapper Ceviche, lightly sprinkled with sea salt, with a watercress topper dressed in light vinaigrette. You might also find her Pickled Cucumber Cold Consommé with Watermelon Sorbet served alongside a Pan-seared Fillet of Snapper. As the preparation involves sake vinegar, this dish has a hint of Japanese flavor. For the very health conscious or European palate, Lauren prepares a simple, incredibly moist Oven-roasted Snapper using only olive oil and salt and pepper. She keeps the scales on to keep the aroma and flavors intact and serves an orange and ginger sauce alongside, with an arugula salad to complement. Another favorite is the Red Snapper with Wild Mushroom Crust incorporating truffle oil, the topping beautifully enhancing the wild flavors of the fish. The dish is lightly drizzled with basil-infused olive oil and served on a bed of crisp French beans alongside a roasted leek garnish.

snapper-on-iceOf course, you may wish to try your hand at creating your own masterpiece when dining in the privacy of home or holiday rental. On Providenciales, you can find seafood in a number of spots. Graceway IGA (on Leeward Highway, soon with a second location in Grace Bay) and Island Pride Supermarket (downtown) bring in an assortment from the US and occasionally purchase locally, the best chance of getting fresh, rather than fresh-frozen. You can also check out Island Seafood next to Neessy Restaurant (across from Discount Liquors and Club Celebrity). If you’re adventuresome, head into Five Cays around 4 PM when fishing boats land with their catch at two fish plants. The plants normally sell only conch and lobster, but if you ask, they can steer you to a boat that has fish for sale if they have none on hand. Here, snapper will run around $6 to $7 per pound for the shallow-water varieties; over $11 a pound for Red Snapper.

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