As a boy growing up in Elizabeth City, James Clark didn’t connect turkey and pumpkin pie with Thanksgiving, but instead rising early to spend the day hunting with family.
“We’d get out in the woods early in the morning, then head back again in the afternoon,” says Clark, chef-owner of the new Postal Fish Company in Pittsboro. “When we got home, we’d have a big oyster roast and fry a bunch of fish and hush puppies instead of the typical turkey and dressing.”
Research suggests this isn’t so different from the way America’s earliest settlers spent the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock. Trade frying for smoking and roasting, and cornmeal-based hush puppies for cornmeal-based bread and porridge, and you’ve got a good start on what researchers at the Smithsonian believe constituted part of the abundant spread at the legendary harvest celebration.
The British already were familiar with many of the seafood they found here, especially oysters. These pilgrims likely picked up some tips for catching and cooking unfamiliar species from Native Americans, who were savvy to its many benefits. They even tucked fish into the fields when they planted corn, appreciating that it would enrich the soil and produce a more abundant yield.
Clark still favors fish over fowl for the holiday and urges others to give it a shot – if not to replace turkey outright then to offer another option for guests who either don’t care for it or don’t eat meat.
“It’s something that will make your pescetarian friends very happy,” he says. “They get to someone’s house and figure they’ll just eat vegetables. For everyone else, it’s a really delicious bonus.”
Clark, the former executive chef at Carolina Crossroads in Chapel Hill’s iconic Carolina Inn, has built a career around cooking fish and seafood, especially the less fashionable bycatch that used to be dismissed as trash fish. While he can transform nearly any fish into a feast fit for the Thanksgiving table, he understands that many home cooks are unnerved by the task.
“I hear all the time at the market that fish is the scariest thing for anybody to cook at home,” says Clark, who operates Hook & Larder, a twice weekly fish market in Pittsboro. “But it can be one of the easiest things to do by just giving it a little care. Putting a whole fish on a baking sheet and roasting it, or putting it under the broiler, is pretty failsafe.”
The most important step is buying fish from a reliable fishmonger. This not only ensures freshness but also that you choose the right fish for your recipe. If the specific type you planned on buying is not available, or the wrong size for your needs, he or she can suggest something else that will work. They’ll also prep it so you don’t have to fret over presenting a fish you’ve inadvertently hacked to bits.
For roasting a whole stuffed fish, Clark is partial to grouper this time of year but says many other seasonal choices will provide good results. Consider vermillion snapper and striped bass, or flounder left on the bone.
“With a whole fish, you want to figure maybe a pound per person, since so much of it is bone,” Clark advises. If you plan to feed a crowd, consider getting two fish that are 6 to 8 pounds apiece, instead of one enormous one, he says.
Jill Warren Lucas is a freelance writer from Raleigh. She can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter at @jwlucasnc.
Stuffed Whole Fish for Thanksgiving
Chef James Clark prefers grouper for this dish but your fishmonger can recommend other options. Cook this in the same roasting pan with a rack that you would have used for your Thanksgiving turkey. Instead of competing for the wishbone, Clark says the luckiest diners will seek out the tender portions of fish cheeks.
1 small loaf of crusty French bread or ciabatta
1 sleeve saltine crackers
2 3-ounce tins of smoked oysters
3/4 cup (6 ounces) olive oil, divided
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small onion, diced
3 ribs celery, diced
1/3 cup (3 ounces) dry white wine
1 cup bottled clam juice
8 sprigs fresh oregano, stemmed and chopped
8 sprigs fresh thyme, stemmed and chopped
8 sprigs fresh basil, 5 to 7 leaves each, stemmed and chopped
Sea salt and freshly-cracked black pepper, to taste
1 6-8 pound fresh whole fish, such as grouper
1 lime, sliced
1 orange, sliced
2 cups fresh orange juice
Prepare bread cubes for the dressing two days before your plan to serve the fish. Cut the bread into half-inch cubes and store uncovered so it can dry out and become stale. Clark likes to keep it in the oven while it is turned off.
On the day you make the dressing, crush the crackers by hand and mix with the cubed bread. Drain the smoked oysters and lightly rinse them. (The oil is very powerful, but if you like the strong flavor, then do not rinse them.)
Warm 1/4 cup olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and sauté the garlic, onions and celery until very soft. Add the white wine and stir until wine is reduced. Remove from heat, allowing contents to become cool to the touch.
In a small bowl, mix the eggs and clam juice together. Mince oregano, thyme and basil; set aside, reserving half for the fish.
Transfer dried bread cubes and crushed saltines to a separate, large bowl. Add cooled onion mixture, then fold in the egg and clam juice mixture, oysters and half of the minced herbs. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
Next, check to ensure that your fishmonger removed the gills; if not, do so with a pair of poultry shears or sharp knife. Fish filter through their gills and they are not something that you want to cook. Rinse the cavity of the fish to be certain it is very clean, then dry well with paper towels.
With the fish balanced on its back, season the inside with salt and pepper and half of the reserved chopped herbs. Rub the outside of the fish, head to tail, with 1/4 cup olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. (Fish can be prepped to this point up to two days in advance and kept covered in the refrigerator.)
When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. If fish has been refrigerated, allow to sit on counter at least 30 minutes. In the meantime, wrap your roasting pan and rack with aluminum foil, coat well with cooking oil spray, and set rack inside of roasting pan. Cut lime and orange into thick slices.
Again, place the fish on its back and tightly stuff the entire cavity with dressing. Place the fish upright onto the rack, with the stuffed belly side down. Do not be afraid to bend the fish tail to fit into your roasting pan. Scatter the citrus slices in the pan and pour in the orange juice.
Place into oven and roast for 30 minutes. Pull pan from oven to brush on remaining olive oil, then return to oven for another 30 minutes. Insert an instant-read thermometer in the thickest part of the belly, just poking through to to the stuffing. When it reads 140 degrees, remove, tent with foil and allow to rest for 15 minutes.
To serve, take a small paring knife and trim away the skin,which should come off very easily. Use tongs to pull away the meat and serve with stuffing.
Yield: 6 servings