by Jeff Young
A new twist
Nothing is new under the sun,” wrote the author of Ecclesiastes (1:9), and he’s right … mostly. As a recipe writer, that quote often echoes in my mind while I’m trying to come up with something “new” in the kitchen. When it comes to food — as with most things in life — the only “new” we can obtain is a new combination … a new twist on something old. And sometimes a new twist on something old is enough to make a huge impact.
Take blackened redfish as an example. On a balmy New Orleans evening in March 1980, in the kitchen of K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen restaurant on Chartres Street in the French Quarter, the late chef Paul Prudhomme came up with a new combination that sent culinary shock-waves around the world. Regarding the blackened redfish craze that Prudhomme started, the late William Rice — the famous food editor and columnist who worked for The Washington Post, Food & Wine magazine, and the Chicago Tribune — once said, “That blackened redfish fad, it depopulated the Gulf of Mexico.” And Chef Emeril Lagasse once noted about Prudhomme that, “he created a dish that was so monumental that they had to put a ban on the product.” It’s true.
In response to the blackened redfish craze, the state of Louisiana had to rewrite commercial harvesting regulations to protect the species and prevent it from being fished into extinction. Prudhomme with his blackened redfish dish was at the forefront of a new culinary movement. It was the first time in the United States that non-European chefs gained a firm standing in the culinary community.
Prudhomme put Cajun and Creole cuisines on the map — not just in the United States, but around the world. And it all started with something “new.” It was a new combination, taking what was considered a mediocre-quality fish, heavily seasoning it, passing it through butter, and cooking it in a super-hot cast-iron skillet. The charred spices and the browned butter gave the fish its color … and its name. The charred spices give the fish a blackened or burnt look. And the method of cooking fish shares the name. One blackens redfish using this method. But redfish aren’t the only fish you can blacken. As a matter of fact, chefs had to adjust after Louisiana implemented regulations on redfish. Today, you can find an excellent dish on the menu at the New Orleans restaurant Brigtsen’s: blackened yellowfin tuna.
Chef Paul died in October 2015. About a week after his passing, I was blessed to interview his protégé and dear friend Chef Frank Brigtsen, the proprietor of Brigtsen’s. “What happened on Chartres Street at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen was nothing short of a phenomenon,” chef Frank told me. It was common for the line outside the restaurant to be 300 people deep. “We would open the doors for dinner at 5:30, and there would already be a line around the block. It would stay that way the whole time we were open.” Eventually, they had to put a one-per-table limit on the dish … in an effort to protect the redfish population.
The method of cooking fish shares the name
“As it happens, I was there when Paul blackened the first redfish at K-Paul’s. It was he and I in the kitchen,” Brigtsen confided. “It was just before we opened that night. He had the station set up. He went over there and heated up a black iron skillet, and he seasoned the fish and passed it in butter, and it started smoking like crazy. “And I was standing there quietly but very skeptical. And then he turned the fish, and I saw that blackened top and got really skeptical. When the fish was done, he put it on a plate and said, ‘Here. Taste this.’ I said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s the best fish I ever had in my life!’ And shortly thereafter, the front doors opened, and he took that one piece of fish and walked out and gave everybody a little taste as they walked in. And the rest literally is history. It became … huge. And it was the dish that really was at the forefront of the Cajun craze, as it were.”
Brigtsen recalled that he blackened a lot of those fish back then. “When I left K-Paul’s after six or seven years, we were sitting around after work one night, and one of my coworkers said, ‘Frank, how many redfish do you think you blackened?’ I said, ‘Oh my gosh, get me a calculator.’ And we guessed about 60,000.” What an amazing impact a new — yet simple — combination had!
“Nothing is new under the sun,” noted the author of Ecclesiastes. And he was right … mostly. But there was something new a little more than 2,000 years ago. God became man. God became one of us. That had never happened before. It was brand new. And we could say that every single human thing that Jesus did in his life was brand new, because it was God doing it. God with skin. Jesus. The Incarnation. But the most dazzlingly new thing that Jesus did is something that we celebrate this month: He rose from the dead. And not only did he rise from the dead, he also conquered death once and for all. That, my friend, is something radically new. Even now it still is, 2,000 years later.
I wanted to share the recipe for blackened redfish (or drum, snapper, catfish, tuna, you name it) with you. But there really isn’t a lot to it. You can read chef Frank’s description above to see how it’s done. Besides, it’s not something you would want to do in your home kitchen. Typically, the vent hood in most residential kitchens can’t handle the amount of smoke this method produces. If you do try it, I encourage you to do so outside. I like to use a cast-iron skillet heated by a propane rig in the backyard. Instead, I’m sharing with you a different new combination: Mediterranean trout.
This recipe was inspired by a meal I had on my trip to the Holy Land in 2014: St. Peter’s fish, prepared traditionally. The recipe below uses trout instead of St. Peter’s tilapia. But the method brings out the flavor of the traditional preparation on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Note: Both the capers and the olives are salty, so be careful adding salt. You don’t want to add too much.