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Lesser-known fish are taking on a starring role

Ellen Sweets

For fish aficionados, there's a new culinary kid on the block and its name is bycatch - fish once upon a time regarded by commercial anglers as the incidental capture of non-targeted species. In other words, that which is hauled in when anglers set out to catch something else. For many years bycatch was a major fisheries management problem, wasting good food, the anglers' time and hundreds of millions of dollars in damaged gear and inefficient fishing methods. But the problem is being brought under control by both anglers and wholesalers who have come to realize that as a matter of sustainability, what was once pitched as undesirable in the United States was being consumed elsewhere in the world as a prized source of protein.

These days, for those willing to move beyond tuna, salmon and tilapia, bycatch awaits in all its flavorful glory, and some anglers even seek out lesser known species. Whether it's called bycatch, trash fish or fabulous, many heretofore unfamiliar finny friends are making their way onto high-dollar dining tables across the country, and Austin is no exception. So while ocean- or deep-sea anglers wax rhapsodic about the glorious thrill of wearing down a swordfish, check out the fish they once pitched.

Jim Gossen, president of the Houston-based company Louisiana Foods, was in on the ground floor of an enterprise that almost decimated the redfish population.

"I can remember when I first started selling redfish, nobody ate it - we ate speckled trout, salmon and tuna, but not black drum," he says. "Then Paul Prudhomme came up with blackened redfish. He was just trying to think of some way to use local fish. He had no idea he was creating a craze. He never intended it, but it led to banning commercial catches of redfish. Now you can only get it from farms or out of the Carolinas. And drum is all over menus in New Orleans."

Redfish depletion focused on the importance of fishing sustainably. It also led to an appreciation of exploiting - in a good way - those fish once deemed undesirable, like almaco jack, blue runner and several other members of the snapper family.

A new generation of local chefs are taking unfamiliar fish to another level. If you've never eaten Texas Gulf golden tile, you probably haven't eaten at Perla's Seafood and Oyster Bar in Austin. Chef Jamie Chozet is sufficiently savvy that if customers want fried shrimp he'll prepare it, but the adventurous diner will be pleased to find such off-the-beaten-track goodies as grilled octopus or a whole loup de mer, also known as Mediterranean sea bass (one can only hope it doesn't go the way of Chilean sea bass, which might have fared better had it kept its true name, Patagonian toothfish; instead, it too has been fished almost into oblivion). Chozet's menu might change twice a day, depending on what's at the delivery door.

Like an increasing number of Austin chefs, Sonya Cote of East Side Show Room focuses on local, sustainable fishing practices, including farmed redfish, which you will find served with fennel, curry coconut milk and lemon.

"Before I came to Austin, I didn't know anything about redfish, and some of the fish I have on my menu I'd never heard of," says the Rhode Island native.

Cote even took on triggerfish, another one of those unfamiliar critters not ordinarily found in restaurants. "That was another one I had to learn about," she says. "I roasted it, stuffed it with shallots and herbs and served it whole. People are kind of freaked out by having a head on their fish, but people in other parts of the world go immediately for the cheeks, and the eyes are a special treat."

Her go-to guy for grouper, amberjack and snapper is Roberto San Miguel. "I keep a relationship with (Roberto) and serve what he buys and feature it as specials on my menu."

Foremost among them is Jesse Griffiths, Austin's reigning hunter, gatherer, fisherman and cook. This pursuit of the new moved him to focus on fish and seafood a few weeks ago at a convocation of his consistently sold-out Dai Due Supper Club.

This time around, diners got a seven-course meal that included a catfish terrine topped with American bowfin caviar. Bowfin, an ancient freshwater fish netted in the Red River, San Jacinto and Sabine river systems, is valued for its roe, which is very similar in taste and texture to the much-prized sturgeon version and has become a Southern delicacy. The fish itself is a remnant of an ancient group of fish that dates back thousands of years.

Griffiths had planned to feature gar that he caught on a pre-meal fishing expedition, but weather wouldn't cooperate. "Not only is gar a freshwater fish, but it is one that people wouldn't ordinarily eat," he says.

"For some reason people don't think of freshwater fish as particularly desirable, but they love catfish, which once was considered trash fish."

Trey Spaw, who grew up on the Gulf Coast and attended the Dai Due bycatch dinner, knows better.

"I fished for all sorts of stuff with my grandfather: amberjack, speckled trout and redfish," he says. "So when I saw the meal was starting with a smoked catfish terrine and bowfin caviar, I knew it was going to be a good evening." And sure enough, when his wife, Soo Lee, had eaten her way through the roe, she pronounced the terrine one of the evening's standouts.

"I didn't know what to expect from the caviar," she says. "If I hadn't known how much was to follow, I would have eaten more. It was brilliant."

Provençal Fish Bisque

This is a curious, blended fish soup I've been making, in various forms, for many years. I like blended soups, which can seem creamy even without cream, although this one does have a little cream added at the end. They're just, well, more refined than a typical country soup. And sometimes I feel the need for a touch of elegance, even on a busy midweek night.

This soup only takes about 30 minutes to make. Yet, eaten with fresh bread and a glass of wine, you feel like you're sitting at an oceanside bistro in Provence. The flavor comes mostly from the stock (shellfish stock or a combination of fish stock and clam juice), the orange zest and saffron. You cannot substitute something else for the saffron; its color and aroma are integral to the soup. A pinch of cayenne adds the faintest zing that brings everything together.

Use any mild white fish, but bluegills are ideal. Other good choices are cod, haddock, any flatfish (flounder, fluke, halibut, sole, turbot, etc.), walleye, crappie or rock cod.

Once the soup is blended and you add the cream in, don't let the soup boil; it could break. And if you have leftovers, just heat them gently in a pot until warm enough to eat.

3 slices bacon, roughly chopped (or substitute 3 Tbsp. olive oil or butter)

1 medium white or yellow onion, chopped

1 large celery rib, chopped

1 large carrot, chopped

Salt

1 lb. white fish fillets, roughly chopped

2 plum tomatoes, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 tsp. orange peel

Pinch of ground red pepper

Large pinch of saffron

1 quart shellfish stock, or 16 oz. clam juice plus 16 oz. fish stock or water

1/4 cup heavy cream

Dill or fennel fronds, for garnish

Cook the bacon on medium heat in a 6- to 8-quart pot until it is crispy. Remove the bacon from the pot with a slotted spoon. Set aside on a paper towel to use for garnish later.

Increase the heat to medium high and add the onion, celery and carrot. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring often, until the onion is translucent. Do not brown. Sprinkle some salt, to taste, over everything as it cooks.

Add the fish, tomatoes and garlic and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, stirring often. Add the orange peel, red pepper and saffron, then pour in the shellfish stock or whatever stock you are using. In a pinch, you could even use chicken or vegetable stock, but the flavor of the soup will be different. Simmer this gently - do not let it get to a rolling boil - for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Get another pot ready. Fill a blender a third of the way with the soup and blend it on high (starting on low, then increasing to high) for 1 minute, or until it is well pureed.

Work in batches to puree the rest of the soup. Pour the pureed soup into the clean pot. Put the soup on medium-low heat and add the cream. Stir well and taste for salt, adding if needed. Do not let this boil, or it might break. Serve garnished with fennel or dill fronds, and alongside some crusty bread. A dry rosé or light red wine would go well with this; I'd suggest a Beaujolais or a pinot noir. Serves 4 to 6.

- Hank Shaw, `Hunt Gather Cook' (Rodale, $25.99)

Pan-Seared Redfish with Peach and Onion

This summertime recipe comes from East Side Show Room chef Sonya Cote. East Side, like increasing numbers of local restaurants, focuses on fresh, locally sourced, organic ingredients. Redfish, long a Southern favorite, frequently appears on Cote's menu. Serve with boiled baby new potatoes and a lightly dressed green salad.

2 Tbsp. grapeseed oil, divided use

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

1 medium under-ripe peach, chopped

2 4-oz. redfish loins, cleaned and trimmed

2 2-oz. slices pancetta

1/2 cup shrimp/fish stock

1/2 cup heavy cream

2 Tbsp. fresh rosemary, chopped

1 tsp. honey

1/2 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter

Heat 1 Tbsp. oil in sauté pan until oil is hot but not smoking. Sauté onions until slightly transparent, add peaches and a pinch of salt. Cook for another two minutes. Place into the center of two dinner plates.

Wrap redfish loins in pancetta and, in the same pan, heat remaining oil over a medium-high heat. Place redfish (presentation side down) and sear until golden, about 3 to 4 minutes. Repeat on other side. Place redfish on top of the peach and onion mixture.

Deglaze pan with shrimp stock, scraping any drippings. Slowly stir in cream, rosemary, honey, salt and pepper. Melt butter into sauce at the very end, spoon over fish and serve. Serves 2.

- Sonya Cote, East Side Show Room

Casting for panfish with Shaw, Griffiths

Hank Shaw and Jesse Griffiths don't exactly fish for a living, but as foragers and hunters who make a living off living off the land, fishing qualifies as work, which is why I didn't feel too guilty asking if they wanted to go on a fishing trip early one weekday morning a few weeks ago when the California-based Shaw was in Austin for the International Association of Culinary Professionals' annual conference.

As advocates for local, wild foods, Griffiths and Shaw knew of each other's work but hadn't met until we gathered at one of Griffiths' favorite fishing spots outside Austin just after dawn. (He made me swear I wouldn't reveal exactly where, but you can watch a video of the fishing trip at austin360.com/food to see if you can figure it out.)

But where we fished isn't as important as what we were after: panfish - small fish that are big enough to keep but small enough to fit in a pan. Anglers often toss bluegills, perch, crappies and cichlids back in the water in favor of the bigger, better-known fish like catfish or bass, but Shaw extolls the virtues of a number of alternative fish - and even teaches you how to catch them - in his new book, "Hunt Gather Cook" (Rodale, $25.99), which came out last month and is an extension of his popular blog, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook (honest-food.net). (Griffiths also occasionally teaches creekside cooking classes in which students fish for their own lunch.)

The dozens of small fish we caught went into a bright-orange fish bisque that chef Jason Donoho of Fino made a few nights later for a special dinner featuring dishes from Shaw's book. You can find the bisque recipe, pictured left, on the back page.

- Addie Broyles

Where to buy fish

Call to either order a specific fish or to check for availability at Central Market, 208-1000 (4001 N. Lamar Blvd.) or 899-4300 (4477 S. Lamar Blvd.); Whole Foods, 476-1206 (525 N. Lamar Blvd.) or 345-5003 (9607 Research Blvd.); and Quality Seafood Market, 5621 Airport Road, 512-454-5827; San Miguel Seafood (Sustainable Food Center Farmers' Market Downtown on Saturdays).

UPDATE: As originally published, this story contained misinformation about the menu and provenance of fish at East Side Show Room, which does not serve line-caught redfish. They serve farm-raised redfish.