Anyone For Road Snapper? [Chef Ben Sargent Visits In Key West On “Hook, Line & Dinner.”]

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Posted May 10, 2012 at 02:16 PM

Ben Sargent with Shaved Ice

Ben Sargent has a great gig.

Best known for the successful underground lobster roll business he operated from his Brooklyn basement apartment, Sargent is also the host of “Hook, Line & Dinner” Thursday nights on Cooking channel..

Growing up in Cambridge, Mass., Sargent developed a love of fishing with his grandfather off the coast of Cape Cod. He remembers hooking into a striper at age 4 or 5 that was almost as big as he was.

In 2001 he opened “Hurricane Hopeful,” a Williamsburg seafood restaurant which featured his famous chowders & lobster rolls.

In 2010, Ben began hosting a weekly radio show called ‘Catch IT, Cook IT & Eat IT.’ He also has appeared on Food Network’s “Throwdown with Bobby Flay” and on Cooking Channel’s “United Tastes of America.”

An episode he shot in Key West premiers at 8 p.m. tonight on Cooking Channel.

During the episode, Sargent meets Bobby Mongelli, Hogfish Bar and Grill’s chef and owner, who takes him out to the marina to catch some fresh hogfish for their popular hogfish sandwich. Sargent then goes fishing for grouper with commercial fisherman Brian Bennett, who does most of his fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, before joining Doug Shook, the head chef at Louie’s Backyard for 25 years, to cook a dish from his repertoire.

I recorded a Table Conversations podcast with Sargetnt recently about his visit. We also talked about how easy it can be to make fresh-caught fish taste great.

Here’s an excerpt:

Ben Sargent

Had you ever fished in Key West before shooting the show?

No. I hadn’t. It’s a cool marriage of sort of like artists, really funky people mixed in with blue-collar, die-hard fisherman. And they all seem to get along. I was amazed.

Writer Randy Wayne White, who is a former commercial fisherman, once called Key West “a drunk hatchery.”


What were you told to prepare for when fishing there? You were going for grouper and hogfish, correct?

Yeah, It’s just a real different type of fishing than what I’m used to. Most times, I’m fishing with plugs in shallow water, so that was all new to me. That initial struggle, when a fish hits and pounds you, it startles you. It’s a little different. What I didn’t understand was that when you get a snapper deep down, the mutton snapper I caught, you have 20 to 30 seconds and if that fish beats you and tangles your line, you’ve lost. Because it makes a bee-line for the bottom and you’re tangled in the rocks. Then you’re basically fighting rocks..

Our fishing here [in Massachusetts] there’s a little more leeway. Sometimes if you’re not on it right away, you can still get away with it. That’s not the case there.

I dug that you showed yourself throwing up over the side when you got seasick. Most fishing shows don’t show anyone getting sick or when they get a bird’s nest in the reel.

Thanks. Unfortunately, everyone else seems to like it, too. They make sure now to put me in the most horrific conditions so I can make a fool of myself. Usually two things are happening. I’m puking over the side of the boat and

I’m not catching any fish, which makes it a very true to life show. It’s the only fishing show that admits we get skunked sometimes.

Ben Sargent with Doug Shook, Head Chef at Louie’s Backyard

You pulled up two mutton snapper and went back to shore to prepare them. A lot of people are intimidated by cooking fish because they think, “Oh, I don’t know how to filet a fish well.” But you had a great preparation from Louie’s Backyard restaurant.

That was Chef Doug. He is a master of the banana leaf. The crew was really angry at me because I took my motorcycle around. The first thing I did was tie the mutton snapper with a bag of ice on the back of my motorcycle and I hooked up a camera to get that shot. One of the snappers fell off the back of the bike and didn’t make it to chef Doug. We don’t know what happened to it because some lucky guy on the side of the road probably saw it on the side of the road and went home and cooked it for his family. We went back to look for it and couldn’t’ find it. You’ll see that in the episode.

You accidentally invented a new term: “Road snapper.”

They were probably confused about how it got there. We were a mile away from the coast.

Doug suggested – and this is his big thing because he like poaching off his neighbor’s property – using any key limes or banana laves that happen to hang into his property, or the restaurant’s property. He sees that as fair game.

We wrapped that fish in banana leaves. It’s like a foolproof way of cooking. Even if it’s undercooked, it’s still steaming and still cooking. All you have to do is scale the fish. Actually, you don’t even have to do that because you’re eating it off the bone from the inside out. You do have to gut the fish, because it imparts a gross flavor. But it looks so fancy and is so easy to do.

* * *

Here’s the recipe for that dish he mentioned:

Whole Mutton Snapper with Mango SalsaWhole Mutton Snapper with Mango Salsa

One 3 to 5-pound mutton snapper, scaled, gutted and gills removed
1 banana leaf
3 bunches fresh cilantro, stemmed and chopped
3 yellow onions, sliced
3 pickled jalapenos, sliced, plus 3 tablespoons pickled jalapeno juice
Kosher salt
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup Key lime juice (or regular lime juice)
Mango Salsa, (recipe follows)
Tortillas, warmed, for serving, optional

For the mango salsa:
1/4 cup lime juice, plus more to taste
1 mango, diced
1 red onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 serrano chile, diced
1 yellow bell pepper, diced
Kosher salt, to taste

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

Carefully score the fish in a diamond pattern using a sharp knife, making sure not to cut through the flesh entirely.

Lay the banana leaf across the center of a large roasting pan or casserole so that the excess falls over either side of the pan. Place a third each of the cilantro, onions and jalapenos on top. Sprinkle the inside of the fish with salt, 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and a handful of onion slices. Lay the fish on the onion bed and top with the remaining cilantro, onions, jalapenos, olive oil, the jalapeno juice and lime juice. Wrap the excess banana leaf over the fish and tuck under to close. Cover the entire roasting pan with foil.

Cook the fish in the oven until a skewer inserted into the fish meets no resistance, 45 minutes. Unwrap the banana leaf and serve family-style with the Mango Salsa. Pass around warm tortillas to fill with snapper and salsa, if using.

Toss together the lime juice, mango, onion, bell peppers and chiles in a medium mixing bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and more lime juice as needed.

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