Thursday, September 15, 2011

Smoked Mullet Spread

Striped mullet fish, or Mugil Cephalus, can be found along the coastlines around the world.   In the United States, various species of mullet (such as white mullet and striped mullet) are most prevalent in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Atlantic.  The biggest fisheries in the U.S. can be found in Louisiana, east of the Mississippi River, and in southwest Florida. 

Mullet school in large populations, and fishermen use cast nets, strike nets or beach seines, fishermen are able to harvest the fish in a manner that results in little bycatch.  These fishing methods have led some, like the Monterrey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, to rate Striped Mullet as not only a sustainable option, but a "best choice."  Cooks often use the oily flesh of the mullet, as well as the roe, in dishes.  The mullet also has an economic importance because, when not being incorporated into local dishes, fishermen use the mullet as bait to catch larger species of fish, such as billfish.

Mullet are rather intriguing fish themselves. Although the most noticeable feature of the mullet is its relatively large eyes, it is the rounded head, inconspicuous teeth and thin lips are more noteworthy.  The teeth and the lips are a gateway to a stomach that has a gizzard like structure.  I say all of this because the teeth and lips are perfect for a fish with a diet that consists of zooplankton, dead plant matter and detritus.  Striped mullets will feed along the top layer of sediment, sucking it in, along with micro-algae and detritrus, using the gravel it consumes in its gizzard to digest its food.

During a recent trip to Eastern Market with Clare's parents, we came across whole Striped Mullets at Southern Maryland Seafood.  While we were principally there to buy some sockeye salmon for smoking, we decided we would experiment with a mullet as well.  We purchased a mullet, which averages between two or three pounds, and were on our way.    

When it came to smoking, I only had three woods available: mesquite, hickory or apple.  Mesquite and hickory would not work with this fish (or, for that matter, any fish).  This left the apple wood.  I had purchased the apple wood when I made the Big Bob Gibson's Eight Time World Championship Pork Shoulder for the Savage Boleks' Second Annual BBQ.  I decided to use apple juice in the liquid bowl to help add a sweetness to the oily flesh of the mullet. 

Clare's father did some research on the Internet and came across some recipes for a smoked mullet spread.  The recipes could be broken down into two categories.  First, there are recipes that call for the use of cream cheese.  Second, there are recipes that are based upon sour cream.  We decided to go with the first category, cream cheese.  We added some fresh herbs, such as chives and tarragon, along with a healthy number of splashes of Tabasco sauce.

A Chef Bolek Collaboration with Frank Savage
Serves many

Ingredients (for the Brine):
1 fresh whole mullet (about 2 pounds), cleaned and gutted
     with head and backbone removed
4 cups water
3/4 cup of Kosher Salt
1/2 cup of light brown sugar

Ingredients (for the Spread):
8 ounces of cream cheese
1/4 cup diced onion
1 tablespoon of fresh chives, chopped finely
1 tablespoon of fresh tarragon, chopped finely
Salt, to taste
Ground black pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon of Tabasco 
1.   Brine the mullet.  Combine the water, salt and brown sugar to create the brine.  Add the mullet to the brine and allow the fish to rest for about forty-five minutes. After forty-five minutes, remove the fish and set it out to air-dry.  

2.  Prepare the smoker.  Start the fire in the smoker.  Once the fire is set, add some pieces of apple wood to start the smoke.   the smoker is ready when the temperature is between 200 and 225 degrees Fahrenheit.

3.  Smoke the mullet.  Add the mullet and smoke it for about one hour.  The internal temperature should reach about 140 degrees Fahrenheit and the meat of the fish should be easy to flake. 

4.  Create the spread.  Remove the fish. Using a fork, pull the flesh off of the skin.  Once you have removed all of the flesh, break it into small pieces.  Combine the fish, cream cheese, tarragon, chives, Tabasco, salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly.

This is a great recipe.  The mullet contributes to this dish, not by adding a heavy smoke flavor to the cream cheese, but by adding texture.  The one thing I would note as a word of caution is to be conservative in the use of tarragon, because it has a strong flavor that could overshadow the fish if too much is added.


For more about Striped Mullet, check out the Florida Museum of Natural History.

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