Debbie Moose loves two things fiercely: UNC-Chapel Hill basketball and North Carolina seafood. Her Tarheel pride is evidenced by the Carolina-blue flamingos bedecking her yard, and she says that she and her husband renovated their home to accommodate more friends to watch the team's televised games.
Meanwhile, Moose extols North Carolina seafood in Carolina Catch, her latest UNC Press book, which is dedicated to fish and shellfish. Though she jokes that her childhood introduction to fish came in stick form, it's clear that Moose's appreciation and knowledge have expanded since then, and it runs deep. In Carolina Catch, she explores the industry that built many of our state's foodways while introducing readers to the vast variety of fish and shellfish available here, from the mountains to the coast. Moose also shares her hard-won advice for sourcing and preparing fish, along with more than ninety recipes, in the hope that readers will be inspired to dive into North Carolina seafood.
The book opens with "Best Basics," a handy primer for buying, storing, prepping, and cooking fish. There are plenty of takeaways, many of which help to dispel common misconceptions. When it comes to buying fish, Moose says that people think it ought to smell like fish. But good fish, she insists, should not smell fishy—it should smell like the ocean. If it doesn't, you should buy your fish elsewhere. She also says that people have a fear of fish because they don't cook it as often as meat or poultry.
"They overcook it once and decide that they don't like fish," Moose says.
To help assuage home cooks' trepidation, Moose's approachable seafood-focused recipes span nearly every meal, organized into categories such as appetizers, soups and salads, main dishes, and "Sides, Sauces, and Sassy Goodies," which includes recipes for homemade tartar sauce and a crabby Bloody Mary. One of her all-time favorite recipes is the Greek Baked Sea Trout.
"It's a really good recipe for people starting out cooking fish," Moose says. "The sauce that covers the fish provides insulation from heat and helps put moisture in the fish, so it's really forgiving."
It's an especially fine recipe to try now, since the sauce features in-season cherry tomatoes cooked down with onions and garlic, brightened with parsley and capers, and it lends itself to being baked on the grill, too (so you don't have to turn your oven on). In addition to sea trout, the recipe also works with any flaky, medium-thick fish fillets, like flounder, snapper, sheepshead, or grunt.
If those last two fish don't sound familiar, don't worry. But do keep an open mind. Moose makes it easy to learn about less commonly known N.C. fish with her "Think Seasonal" index, which includes helpful descriptions of texture and flavor mixed with recommendations.
Trying under-loved fish (Moose prefers this term to the oft-used "trash fish") not only expands your palate, but it also tends to be less expensive than popular but overfished varieties like flounder, snapper, and grouper, so it's also a more sustainable choice.
This summer try amberjack, a thick, juicy alternative to salmon or swordfish. Looking for a substitute for mahi or swordfish for fish tacos or grilled entrees? Try cobia, which boasts an equally thick, meaty texture. Tilefish, with its flaky texture and mild, sweet taste, makes a great swap for flounder or snapper. The thin fillets fry up quickly and need little more than a pat of butter or a squeeze of lemon juice.
Moose is also quick to praise local restaurants who are committed to sourcing and serving N.C. fish and shellfish, which not only helps support the industry, but educates diners on under-loved varieties. You may not have heard of drum, but chef Ricky Moore of Saltbox Seafood Joint has. He recently grilled black drum, a firm, meaty, mild-flavored fish, and served it alongside summer-truffle-corn soubise. It was the finale in a five-course seafood dinner held in honor of Carolina Catch, in which Moose also includes Moore's recipe for Chowan County Shellfish "Muddle."
The dinner, held at chef Sean Fowler's Mandolin, also featured dishes from other local chefs, as well as companies such as Locals Seafood, who source exclusively N.C. seafood for many Triangle restaurants. Proceeds from the dinner benefitted NC Catch, an organization committed to strengthening the state's seafood economy by educating consumers about the importance of buying local.
Whether you're trying your hand at Moose's Greek Baked Sea Trout—get the recipe at indyweek.com—or confidently ordering grunt, by focusing your choice on N.C. seafood, you're guaranteed to eat what's freshest and in season.
"Know where you're getting your seafood from," says Moose. "The industry is such a vital part of the state and what it has to offer us is so good. We should enjoy it."