The abundance of seafood has been a culinary hallmark of Virginia since people began cooking there. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, folks have long noted the variety and quality of local marine life.
Captain Christopher Newport wrote in 1607:
The main river [James] abounds with sturgeon, very large and excellent good, having also at the mouth of every brook and in every creek both store and exceedingly good fish of divers kinds. In the large sounds near the sea are multitudes of fish, banks of oysters, and many great crabs rather better, in fact, than ours and able to suffice four men.
Virginia’s seafood industries is one of the oldest in the United States, and one of the state’s largest; the Virginia Institute of Marine Science reports the annual economic impact to be more than a half billion dollars.
Fresh seafood abounds across the commonwealth; from eateries along the Atlantic Ocean, Chesapeake Bay and their tributaries where watermen sometimes dock right out back and deliver the catch, to inland where shipments are just a short drive away and are made sometimes the same day the fish and shellfish come ashore.
October is National Seafood Month, followed by Virginia Oyster Month in November.
Here are some of my favorite recipes to whet your appetite for some fabulous fruits de mer, whether you order a similar dish at one of the state’s great restaurants, or channel your inner chef at home using fresh catch from commonwealth waters.
October is also Virginia Wine Month, and I’ve got suggested pairings for each of these four fabulous dishes.
The recipes and notations come from my book, Dishing Up Virginia
One of George Washington’s favorite foods was fish, which he ate almost daily. According to his step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, “He ate heartily, but was not particular in his diet, with the exception of fish, of which he was excessively fond.”
Much of the fish Washington ate was caught from the Potomac River. The 405-mile-long waterway played a big role in Washington’s life: he was born in 1732 near Colonial Beach on the Northern Neck and spent his life near its shores.
Many fish are found in the brackish Potomac, including herring, shad, and striped bass (known as rockfish in Virginia), which is the star of this recipe.
4 (4-ounce) striped bass fillets
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1⁄8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons butter, cubed
1⁄2 cup half-and-half
1 teaspoon paprika
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 2-quart baking dish with butter or cooking spray.
Arrange the fish in the baking dish and sprinkle with the salt, white pepper, and nutmeg. Evenly distribute the butter on top of the fish, then pour the half-and-half over the fillets.
Bake the fish for 15 to 20 minutes, or until tender and flaky. Plate the fish fillets and spoon 1 or 2 tablespoons of creamy sauce on top. Sprinkle paprika over each serving and serve immediately.
Yields 4 servings
Pairing: try a brighter white, like Breaux Vineyards’ 2013 Viognier
EASTERN SHORE OYSTER STEW
With its rich and creamy base, oyster stew showcases the bivalve in a way quite unlike other dishes.
Cooked just enough to be heated through, the oysters remain tender, plump, and flavorful as they swim in a soup of milk and cream accented with complementary spices and seasonings.
This classic Eastern Shore dish is quick and easy to make, but the rewards are many.
1-1⁄2 cups milk
1⁄2 cup heavy cream
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1⁄8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1⁄8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pint shucked oysters, liquor reserved
4 chives, chopped
Warm the milk, cream, salt, white pepper, nutmeg, and cayenne in a large saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until hot, about 10 minutes.
Warm the butter over low heat in a medium saucepan until melted. Add the oysters and liquor, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the edges of the oysters begin to curl, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the oyster mixture to the milk mixture, and cook on medium-low heat for about 2 minutes; do not boil.
Divide the soup among four serving bowls and garnish with the chives before serving.
Yields 4 servings
Pairing: try a richer white, like Chatham Vineyards’ oak blend Church Creek Chardonnay
A popular crisp and light seafood dish is poke, a classic offering consisting of diced raw fish (tuna is typically used) marinated in complementary ingredients.
Though the name comes from the Hawaiian verb meaning to cut or slice, this dish can be replicated many ways and is well known in Virginia, especially in surfing communities along the coast.
Poke can be served as hors d’oeuvres or as an entrée, depending on the serving size and accompaniments. It is a nice take on ceviche and uses one of the most popular fishes harvested in Virginia waters.
1⁄2 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3⁄4 cup finely chopped scallions, white and light green parts
1⁄4 cup finely chopped sweet onion, such as Vidalia
1⁄2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 pounds fresh tuna steak, cut into 1⁄4-inch cubes
1 cup arugula 8–12 endive leaves
2 tablespoons toasted, finely chopped macadamia nuts
1 tablespoon white and black sesame seeds
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
Whisk the soy sauce, sesame oil, and olive oil together in a medium non-reactive bowl. Stir in the scallions, sweet onion, and pepper flakes. Add the tuna and toss to coat. Refrigerate, covered, until well chilled but no more than 2 hours.
Pile the arugula onto a serving plate and arrange the endive leaves on top. Spoon the tuna into each endive leaf, dividing it equally among the leaves. Garnish with the macadamia nuts, sesame seeds, and sea salt. Drizzle a bit of the remaining marinade over the tuna and greens and serve immediately.
Yields 4-6 servings
Pairing: try a fruity red, like Good Luck Cellars‘ 2010 Radiant Red (chambourcin)
OLD SCHOOL CRAB CAKES
WITH COCKTAIL SAUCE
Although found in other parts of the country, crab cakes are rightfully associated with the Chesapeake Bay region.
Folks here have been making some form of them for centuries. There are two kinds of crab cakes — homestyle and restaurant-style.
The first type may use quite a bit of filler, like breadcrumbs or crushed crackers, a binder, and crabmeat grades like special or claw. These patties are typically fried and sometimes served on buns,
Restaurant-style may or may not use filler, has little binder, and features lump backfin or jumbo lump. These are often sautéed and served with rich sauces.
Both are delicious.
Cocktail Sauce Ingredients
1 cup ketchup
1 cup chile sauce
1⁄4 cup plus
1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
1 tablespoon Asian hot sauce, such as Sriracha
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Crab Cakes Ingredients
1⁄4 cup mayonnaise
1-1⁄2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1⁄2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1⁄4 teaspoon Chesapeake Bay seasoning
1⁄8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound backfin crabmeat
8 Ritz or other buttery crackers, crushed
3 scallions, light green and white parts only, finely chopped
2 cups all-purpose flour
1⁄2 cup peanut oil
Make the sauce: Whisk the ketchup, chile sauce, horseradish, hot sauce, and lemon juice together in a medium bowl until combined. Cover and chill for at least an hour before using.
Make the crab cakes: Whisk the mayonnaise, egg, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, dry mustard, pepper flakes, Chesapeake Bay seasoning, and black pepper together in a medium bowl. Put the flour in a shallow dish.
Combine the crabmeat, crackers, and scallions in a separate bowl and lightly toss. Pour the mayonnaise mixture over the crabmeat mixture and gently toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for about 20 minutes to firm up.
Form the crab mixture into cakes using a 3-ounce ice cream scoop (or about 3 tablespoons) for each and dredge them lightly in flour.
Heat the peanut oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and, working with two or three crab cakes at a time, cook until golden, 4 to 5 minutes. Turn the crab cakes and cook until golden on the other side, about 4 minutes.
Place on a covered paper towel–lined plate and cover to stay warm while you cook up the rest of the batch or place on an ovenproof plate in a slow oven at around 200F.
Serve the crab cakes with a dollop of cocktail sauce on the side.
Yields 4-6 crab cakes
Pairing: try a crisp white with some minerality, like Barboursville Vineyards’ 2013 Pinot Grigio
MAKE YOUR SEAFOOD SENSIBLE
To help keep Virginia seafood sustainable, the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach coordinates the Sensible Seafood program.
Affiliated with the Monterrey Bay Aquarium in California, the program offers guidelines for best choices of seafood based on a number of factors such as whether the catch is fished or farmed in environmentally friendly ways, if it contains contaminants, and so on.
An advisory panel produces the annual “best choices” list, which is available on the aquarium’s website for folks to make selections whether buying a seafood dish at a restaurant or purchasing fish or shellfish at a market to prepare at home.
The aquarium also hosts the Sensible Seafood Fest each May, which celebrates foods prepared with regionally sourced, sustainable ingredients from around two dozen of the facility’s Sensible Seafood partner restaurants paired with local beer and wine.
Patrick Evans-Hylton, a Johnson & Wales University trained chef, is a Norfolk, Va.-based food journalist, historian and educator. His work has appeared in print, television, radio and social media since 1995. Evans-Hylton calls his cookbook, Dishing Up Virginia, his love letter to the state’s foods and foodways. He blogs at PatrickEvansHylton.com.