|Fried Sugars from Arnest Seafood in Manquin, Virginia|
It's that time of the year again in foodie land, where all the big-time food mags predict what trends will take off in 2012. Epicurious.com recently posted their take which included everything from the revitalization of hotel dining to the use of fennel pollen. Also, listed front-and-center was "fin to tail" eating or what the rest of us call eating a whole fish (??) To be honest, as someone who does a lot of fishing, I don't really get this as a so-called trend, since whenever I catch something, which isn't all that often, I do my best not to waste one smidgin of "fin", but what the heck do I know? Seems moonshine is also trending in 2012, yet according to plenty of my Appalachian kin, illegally distilled booze has been trending steady for about 150 years.
But, I digress.
One thing I do know is that out of all the posts I have done on this blog for the past year none has garnered as many hits as my bit on sugar toads by way of Arnest Seafood, an unassuming out-of-the-way joint near Virginia's Chesapeake Bay, where in addition to steaming up some of the best blue crabs in the area, also pan fries some mighty tasty sugar toads.
|Sugar toads taste even better with a cold Budweiser and fried crab chips|
"Sugar toads. They're not what you think, so put those images of deep fried frog outta your head. Sugar toads are what we coastal Virginia folk call the Northern Puffer fish, which is a seasonal bottom-dwelling fish unique to the Chesapeake Bay. Sugar toads primarily feed on shellfish, and have earned their nickname due their less than Vogue-worthy appearance. For many years, puffers were considered as nothing more than an annoyance that needed to be thrown back until several well-known (and high-end) restaurants began serving this sweet, flaky fish with the unusual name to rave reviews. Sugar toads, like all puffer fish, have ability to fill their stomachs with water as a defense and puff up, making them a not-so-easy to digest prey. From a culinary standpoint, it must also be noted that Chesapeake Bay puffers are completely non-poisonous, and unlike their Fugu brethren, pose no threat to those who eat them."
My prediction is that by 2013, sugar toads will be making quite a few top ten food trends lists. I've been seeing them more and more on local restaurant menus around Richmond including The Roosevelt (they were excellent FYI) and at Mamma Zu's. Then, there's Chef Jimmy Sneed's new venture BlowToad set to open any day now, which one would assume will be serving some version of these tasty puffers? Local RVA'ers haven't exactly taken to Sneed's choice in restaurant names, but it seems that Sugar Toad (which is a much user-friendly title, and is also where Sneed used to be chef in Naperville, Illinois) is no longer up for grabs. So, BlowToad it shall be.
In the meantime, I suggest hitting up your local fishmonger to see if you can score some of these little guys yourself. Even better, if you're sea-worthy, go freeze your butt off on the Chesapeake Bay and try to line-catch your own cache. Apparently, Chesapeake Bay sugars love bloodworms, and while more plentiful in the spring, they also have a winter season, so theoretically you can catch them all year long. Some fisherman have been known to brag that they've caught upwards of 100 at a time since sugar toads often travel in large groups.
Here's a basic recipe for sugar toads, which like most fresh fish is best served up fried in cast iron pan.
Buttermilk Fried Sugar Toads with Homemade Tartar Sauce
If you don't have experience cleaning sugar toads, have your fishmonger do the job since their skin is very tough to remove and has a sandpaper quality to it. Sugar toads are best eaten by hand much like a piece of fried chicken.
1 pound Atlantic Pufferfish (a.k.a. sugar toads), cleaned with skin/fins removed
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
1 tablespoon Old Bay seasoning
Pinch of black pepper
1/2 teaspoon Cayenne pepper
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
Oil (or Crisco) for frying
Preheat oil to about a 1 1/2 inch depth in a cast-iron skillet until a thermometer reaches 375 degrees. Meanwhile, in a shallow dish mix together cornmeal, flour, Old Bay, and peppers. In another small dish, whisk together egg and buttermilk.
Pick up sugar toads by the tailfin and dip them in the buttermilk mixture and then dredge in flour mixture. Fry (being careful not to crowd the fish) in hot oil until lightly brown and crispy. Drain on paper towels or a wire rack set over a sheet pan. Lightly sprinkle fish with sea salt. Serve with tartar sauce and garnish with lemon wedges.
Homemade Tartar Sauce
Makes 1 cup
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons onion, minced
2 tablespoons sweet pickles, minced
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice (or more, to taste)
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce, more if you like it spicy
Pinch of Cajun seasoning or Old Bay seasoning
Salt and pepper, to taste
Mix all ingredients well in a small bowl. Cover and chill.
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