As a farmer's daughter, Elizabeth Wiegand takes special pleasure in the growing support for the farm-to-fork movement. She especially appreciates recognition of the considerable effort it takes for farmers to make it easier for consumers to enjoy fresh, locally grown vegetables and humanely raised meats.
She's doing her bit to turn the tide in one area that has not caught on with comparable fervor: a boat-to-table wave to celebrate seafood harvested from both the fresh and salt waters that lap our state's shores.
"Even if they know it comes from a very reliable source, some people just don't buy fish because they are intimidated by how to cook it," Wiegand says from the spacious kitchen of her North Raleigh home. "They're convinced it will smell or taste 'fishy.' Or they think it's way too difficult to make a restaurant- quality meal at home."
With the new second edition of her Outer Banks Cookbook: Recipes & Traditions from North Carolina's Barrier Islands, Wiegand is on a mission to prove that fresh fish can be as easy to fix as a grilled steak—or as complex as a great coq au vin. She's spreading the gospel on behalf of some of the most creative chefs on the Outer Banks, as well as home cooks who remember how, before good roads and ferries, they made do with what was caught or grown in their community.
Wiegand counts the region's hardworking fisherman among her heroes because they endure long days and difficult environmental and economic challenges to provide their bounty to top restaurants up and down the East Coast. Increasingly, they're also working with partners to hustle their daily catch inland to a growing number of Triangle markets and community-supported fisheries.
"Eighty percent of the seafood we consume in the U.S. is imported. That is sad and outrageous to me," Wiegand says. "With the wonderful resources we have in North Carolina, there's just no reason to eat fish that's not from here. Well, unless you really crave salmon."
As with the first edition of her book, Wiegand spent many weeks on the coast conducting painstaking research—in other words, sampling exceptional food with her longtime friend and guide Della Basnight, to whom the book is dedicated. Wiegand includes the legendary Hatteras Clam Chowder served at the Basnight family's Lone Cedar Cafe in Nags Head. The recipe traces back five generations to matriarch Dolly Midgett, who was born in 1826 on Hatteras Island.
"I'd have to force myself to go back time and again, listen to all their stories and eat all that great food along the Banks," Wiegand jokes, adding that locals never call their home the Outer Banks. "If you really want to break my heart, make me go back tomorrow."
Wiegand's love affair with the Banks began as a newlywed. The couple spent six weeks at the coast thanks to her husband's family, who owned a beach house.
"Steve loves to fish, and I had to learn how to deal with whatever he brought in," Wiegand says. "My rule was that if he caught it, he cleaned it. I love to cook, but I don't clean fish."
An intuitive cook and a writer who excels at sharing the stories of her subjects, Wiegand sought formal training to boost her abilities and appreciation of fine cooking. She studied in France at the acclaimed L'Academie de Cuisine and Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne, the same place where Southern foods connoisseur Virginia Willis honed her skills.
Wiegand spent weeks focusing on classic French cooking techniques before she experienced a textbook light-bulb moment. "The chef taught us how to make crème anglaise," she says of the delicate dessert cream. "I thought to myself, it's just boiled custard. What am I doing here? We have great food in North Carolina."
Wiegand returned home with a new sense of purpose. She attended major food conferences with the goal of writing a cookbook. At one, she was fortunate to meet the legendary Julia Child, who bolstered her dream with advice to "write about what I know and feature the great foods of my own experience."
After receiving several rejections for a book proposal to comprehensively document North Carolina's diverse culinary traditions, Wiegand was accepted by Globe Pequot Press, which produced the first edition of the Outer Banks Cookbook in 2008.
"They told me to start at the coast and, if it was successful, to do the mountains next," says Wiegand, who did just that in 2010 with The New Blue Ridge Cookbook. "It was a very different terroir, but the chefs and cooks really weren't that different in their approaches.
"Back in the day, it was just as hard to get to town and they had to use what they had," she adds. "They all had great stories about how they honor the local resources."
While she enjoyed her exploration, Wiegand says North Carolina's coast serves as a "salve to my soul." She is putting the final touches on The Food Lovers' Guide to the Outer Banks, a new resource scheduled for May release.
Wiegand is toying with the idea of a Piedmont-based cookbook and one on seasonal cooking in the South. But first, she needs a break.
"I really enjoy seeing great chefs make use of local ingredients, but if I'm not working on a project I'm just as happy staying home and eating in," she says. "If you asked my husband, he'd say, 'Why go out?' Especially if you can get a really nice piece of fish, you can make a great dinner at home."
Recipes printed by permission of Elizabeth Wiegand from The Outer Banks Cookbook, Recipes & Traditions from North Carolina's Barrier Islands (Second Edition, Globe Pequot Press, 2013).
Thick and firm-fleshed fish, such as grouper, mahimahi or rockfish, do best with this quick and easy preparation.
Freshly ground pepper
1 (6 ounce) fish fillets, skin removed
1/2 lemon, juiced
Tomato of fresh fruit salsa, prepared pesto of herbed butter (optional)
2 tablespoons olive oil
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Salt and pepper the fish. Sprinkle with lemon juice. If using a salsa, pesto or herbed butter, spread a thin coating on each fillet.
In an ovenproof large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Place the fish in the oil, skinned-side up, sear for 2 minutes; turn the fish over, and sear another minute. Transfer the pan to the oven.
Roast fish for 6-10 minutes, depending in the thickness and desired doneness. (Check with a fork to see if the fish flakes or is no longer pink.) Remove fish to plates and top with salsa, pesto or herbed butter, if desired. Serve immediately.
Margarita Grilled Shrimp
A happy hour on skewers, these shrimp as delicious served as an entree over a bed of greens and chopped red tomatoes or simply pulled from the skewers as an appetizer. You'll need about a dozen short (8-inch) skewers or six to eight long (12-inch) ones.
Yields 4-6 servings (or about 25 appetizers with shrimp alone)
2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
FOR THE MARINADE
1/4 cup tequila
2 tablespoons lime juice
Zest of 1 lime
1/4 cup thinly sliced green onion
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
1 small jalapeño pepper, minced
2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. canola oil
FOR THE VEGETABLES
6-8 cups mixed lettuce
2 tomatoes, chopped
4 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. tequila
1 Tbsp. lime juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Place marinade ingredients in a bowl or resealable plastic bag. Add shrimp and stir or shake to coat. Refrigerate about 30 minutes.
Preheat grill or broiler. If using wooden skewers, soak in water until needed. Thread shrimp of skewers, not packing them too tightly together so they will cook evenly.
Place shrimp on grill (or under broiler) and cook for a total of 5-6 minutes or until pink and firm, turning at least once. Remove from heat.
Prepare a bed of greens and tomatoes on each plate. Whisk together the olive oil, tequila and lime juice, then season. Pour over greens and tomatoes. Divide shrimp skewers evenly and plate them across the plates. Serve immediately.
This article appeared in print with the headline "From the boat to your table."