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Morning on the fishing docks at Ocracoke Island, NC.

“I can’t eat this.”

The big boy is staring at his dinner plate, a look of dismay creeping across his face.

“It was just alive.”

Well yes, honey. You caught it this morning. Five mahi mahi and one wahoo:

The boys with their deep sea haul.
The boys with their deep sea haul.

Who knew our trip to Ocracoke Island would turn into a lesson on the food chain and responsible eating?

Every few years, we spend a summer week on this island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. I love the beach and boutiques; the husband loves the deep sea fishing. He always charters a boat for a day in the Gulf Stream, coming back with whatever is running. We take tuna or wahoo or amberjack home and enjoy it for months.

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The little one reeling in his catch.

This year, he decided the boys were old enough to accompany him. So early one morning, the three hiked down to the Silver Lake docks and boarded The Gecko, a fishing boat ably commanded by the ruddy, seasoned Capt. Ernie.

Eight hours and a few bouts of seasickness later, they called for me to come get them and their freshly filleted fish. We bought freezer bags at the general store (“What did ya all bring in?” the cashier drawled as she rang up our purchase), then went back to our rented house to freeze the mahi fillets and wahoo steaks and to make dinner:

Oven-roasted mahi mahi with olive oil, lemon and dill.

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Dinner mere hours after the boys harvested it from the sea.

The fish is silky and buttery, with none of the fishy smell or taste you find from supermarket fillets. But still, the big boy balks.

“I can’t eat this.”

Thus begins the lesson. We talk about responsibility: Yes, these fish lost their lives today, but they will feed us for many months. We will not waste them; they did not die in vain.

We also talk about choice: Many people decide on ethical and moral grounds not to eat living creatures — or even byproducts of living creatures. And if that’s how he feels, we’ll respect his choice.

He pushes his plate aside and says he’ll think about it.

Me and the boys before leaving the docks.
Me and the boys before leaving the docks.

A couple of days later, we rent a boat for half a day and go fishing in the Intracoastal Waterway. (Thank you, Capt. John.) We come home with three red drum, which John expertly fillets for us. We freeze four of them (“Are they bitin’ agin?” the cashier drawls), and saute the rest for dinner.

The big boy eyes his plate and takes a bite. I don’t know if it’s the drum or the shower of seasoned and browned panko breadcrumbs on top of it, but he cleans his plate.

“That was good,” he says. “I bet we ate the one I caught today.”

Red Drum With Seasoned Breadcrumbs

Capt. Ernie fillets the drum.
Capt. John fillets the drum.

Feel free to use any thin, filleted fish in this dish. Leftover breadcrumbs can be showered on sauteed vegetables or pasta dishes.

  • 4 red drum fillets
  • Olive oil
  • 1/2-3/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • Salt & pepper

Dry the drum fillets and sprinkle them with salt and pepper.

Glaze a saute pan with olive oil and heat until it’s shimmering. Add the panko, the garlic and the lemon zest. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper. Heat the crumbs until they’re golden brown, stirring constantly.

Transfer the crumbs to a plate, and wipe the saute pan clean. Film again with olive oil and reheat.

When the oil is hot enough to shimmer, add the drum fillets. Saute for 2 minutes per side. Remove to a platter and shower with breadcrumbs.

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