The Dish on Fresh Fish

I love to cook all kinds of food, but I especially love preparing dinner when my husband brings home a fresh catch from his own fishing line or from a local fish market. I thought it would be interesting to help people understand what to look for when buying fresh fish and seafood at their local fish house. It seems that most of us love seafood but are intimidated by picking it out and then actually cooking it!

Fresh yellow tile fish on ice at Haag & Son's Seafood (7901 E. Oak Island Dr.). Photo by Kris Beasley

Fresh yellow tile fish on ice at Haag & Son’s Seafood (7901 E. Oak Island Dr.). Photo by Kris Beasley

I enlisted the help of Executive Chef Stephen Phipps of the well known Mr. P’s Bistro in Southport. Chef Steve grew up in Southport. He worked in many restaurants under his father’s leadership, as well as taking on an apprenticeship under Lowcountry culinarian Chef Louis Osteen. He graduated with the first class from Charleston branch of Johnson and Wales culinary school. Chef Steve also loves to fish in his spare time. I knew he would be the perfect candidate to help me understand what to look for when buying fresh seafood and fish.

Executive Chef Stephen Phipps of Mr. P's Bistro and John Haag, owner of Haag and Son's Seafood, grew up together in Southport. Both have a longtime love for fishing—while John made a career out of catching local seafood, Steve made a life out of cooking it. Photo by Kris Beasley

Executive Chef Stephen Phipps of Mr. P’s Bistro and John Haag, owner of Haag and Son’s Seafood, grew up together in Southport. Both have a longtime love for fishing—while John made a career out of catching local seafood, Steve made a life out of cooking it. Photo by Kris Beasley

There are several local businesses in our area that sell fresh, local seafood: Clem’s Seafood, Pelican Seafood and Market, and Haag and Sons Seafood. We decided to meet at Haag and Sons Seafood where Steve has a personal relationship with the owner, John Haag. They both grew up in Southport and really care about the local seafood business here. John strives to provide a wide variety of fresh, local fish and support the fishermen, the restaurants and the people of this area.

“North Carolina is unique, right here where we are in the Cape Fear,” John revealed. It was touching to see John and Chef Steve speak so sweetly of each other, their craft and their families.

When selecting shrimp, ensure the bodies are firm. Chef Steve encourages leaving the shrimp intact, heads and all, as the flavor is more full when cooking this way. Photo by Kris Beasley

When selecting shrimp, ensure the bodies are firm. Chef Steve encourages leaving the shrimp intact, heads and all, as the flavor is more full when cooking this way. Photo by Kris Beasley

The fish counters were full of fish! Big, whole fish. Grouper, snapper, grunts. Chef Steve pointed out that when buying fresh fish, look at the eyes. Make sure they are still convex and not cloudy. If you are unsure of the fish, ask! The staff at Haag and Sons are trained. For example, you can say, “I am having 10 people over for dinner. How much fish do I need?” If you like the way a fish looks, you can ask, “What does this fish taste like?”

Once your selection is made, you can ask for the fish to be cleaned, boned and skinned. They can cut it into filets or leave it in whole sections. Just know that once the fish has been cleaned, you need to cook it that day for optimum freshness. “Once the fish is skinned and boned, the countdown begins,” Steve joked. Always store the fish on ice before preparing.

Fresh fish is easy to prepare. Marinate and grill. Season, flour and fry. The key to good fish is to not overcook it. Chef Steve likes to “season, dredge it in cornmeal, and fry it with olive oil for three to five minutes, flip it, and put it in a 350-degree oven for 10 to 20 minutes to finish it off.” There are a ton of easy fish recipes out there. Google one and go for it!

Shrimp—everyone loves Shrimp. The day we were at Haag and Sons they had some huge white North Carolina shrimp. Chef Steve got so excited.”These are beautiful. This inspires me,” he spoke of his muse.

Make sure the shrimp are firm. Steve encourages leaving the shrimp intact, heads and all. “There is a lot of flavor in there,” he noted, pointing to the head and shell of the shrimp. Later he showed us how to blacken those shrimp by tossing them in butter and sprinkling liberally with blackening season, then tossing them on a hot cast-iron skillet. “Three to five minutes per side,” he heeded. “The shrimp are steaming in their own shell.”

As for scallops, be sure that you buy white ones. If they have an orange color to them, they are not good. Firm and white is a good measure to go by.

Spending the morning with John Haag and Chef Steve was an honor. I was so impressed with the history and knowledge that these two men share. It made me feel proud to live in this area as a local.

Please go out and buy some fresh, local seafood. Don’t be scared. Ask questions. And enjoy.

If this article inspires you, please share your photos of the fresh, local fish you bought and how you prepared it. Send them to: kris@southportmag.com or bethany@southportmag.com.

Be sure to check out our first Southport Magazine TV video with Chef Steve and I, as he prepares the fish he selected that day at Haag and Sons. We show you step-by-step how easy it is to prepare a gourmet meal using fresh fish and shrimp.

One Response to The Dish on Fresh Fish

  1. Ron Hadley says:

    Absolutely a great place for a Holiday family dinner or romantic evening with a significant other. My wife and family have been to Mr. P’s several times since moving to Oak Island on 2013. Would recommed it to anyone for great food, atmosphere and service. Keep up the wonderful cooking !!!

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