Along the coast, we have already enjoyed some summer-like weather, and it’s about to ramp up another notch or two — or three. This is a special recipe to enjoy one of the spring fish that fishermen have been catching in good numbers this year. With the warmer weather comes warmer water, and the whiting catches will soon begin to taper off until the water cools again in the fall.
In addition to being whiting, they are also called sea mullet and/or Virginia mullet. These names are colloquial monikers as they actually belong to a family known as kingfish, which are cousins in the drum family. Whatever you call them, whiting are one of the most understated fish of the spring. They typically don’t get a lot of lip service or print in fishing reports, but everyone who has ever eaten them holds their fine fillets in high regard.
An overlooked fish
Whiting don’t have the elusiveness of trout or the bulldog fighting abilities of their drum cousins, and they are probably one of the last fish that will be mentioned by piscatorial gourmands, but they are the preferred dinner of generations of coastal fishermen. They have slightly sweet, mild and firm white-meat fillets and are excellent table fare prepared in a variety of ways.
For most fishermen, a meal of whiting is pretty simple. They are good simply dredged through your favorite seafood breader and introduced to a pan of hot grease. The meat isn’t as delicate as trout nor as firm as red drum, but few folks who enjoy eating fish consider it a second choice to either. And they freeze well, too.
This recipe is simply a way to dress up and celebrate a whiting dinner. Instead of just adding breader and frying them, it mixes crushed pecans and orange zest into a homemade breader that also includes seasoned Panko crumbs. This recipe is excellent fried or baked in the oven, but my family prefers it cooked on the grill. I had intended to cook this batch on the grill, but a thunderstorm interrupted those plans. I was upset at first but realized this created the opportunity to show the versatility of this recipe, so most was baked, with a few pieces fried to show it works well that way.
I grew up in a commercial-fishing family, and there was a time we ate stronger-flavored fish because they didn’t sell, and I learned to like them. I liked milder-tasting fish too, but there had to be an abundance of them to get to keep any — that is, except for whiting. They have always been special to us, and we kept a mess or two when we caught them.
As youngsters, we ate our whiting fried. They didn’t get fancy breaders but were covered with a mixture of flour and corn meal, with salt and pepper added. The breader didn’t disguise the flavor of the whiting; they tasted great. They still do.
One of my best memories of eating whiting is having them for breakfast one morning while camping on the beach. My parents had begun to prepare breakfast, and I was putting out a pair of surf rods to watch while we ate. The whiting started biting, and I was catching them as quickly as I could rebait and cast back out. My parents laughed as I didn’t stop catching fish and my eggs got cold. When the action slowed a little, my dad cleaned a few of the whiting and fried them for me. A storm was brewing, and the growing wind blew sand in my fish, but those whiting were the best fish ever.
I think of that trip and those whiting every time I eat them; this is why I wanted to do a special recipe for whiting. My doctors tell me not to eat fried fish, so I worked on this recipe with pecans and orange peel to cook on the grill. Neither of these ingredients is overbearing, but you can taste them in the mix. It’s not the same as fried fish, but it’s pretty dang good, and I’ll take a mess of whiting any time I can.
This recipe was intended to be cooked on the grill, but a late afternoon thunderstorm forced moving to Plan B. They’re almost as good baked in the oven and I even fried a few pieces — just for old times’ sake.
The cup of chopped pecans looks like a lot, but if you load up the pieces of fish and press on them to be sure the pecan pieces stick, it’s a good measurement. I used seasoned Panko bread crumbs, which reduced the need for salt to just a very light sprinkle. I went pretty heavy on the pepper, and if you like it spicy, you might try adding a few shakes of cayenne pepper too.
Whiting fillets are pretty thin, so you need to be careful not to overcook them. It only takes a few minutes, and I don’t turn them when cooking on the grill or baking in the oven. They will be ready as soon as you notice the pecan breader getting darker. They’re ready to eat when the fish flakes easily.
If you’re going to fry them, be especially careful. It cooks very quickly over the medium setting, but I’m concerned that cooking it on a lower setting might make it taste greasy. A cast iron or heavy aluminum pan is optimum for frying as they spread the heat evenly and you don’t have hot or cold spots.
Only enough oil to cover the bottom is needed. This will be about 1/8-inch deep, and the pan should be preheated so you see and hear a sizzle immediately upon putting the fish in the pan. Peanut or safflower oil works well and resists scorching if it gets too hot.
I like to turn the fish once when frying. This takes some care to prevent breaking up the fish or raking off the pecan breader. I like to cook smaller pieces of fish and turn them with cupped tongs.
This recipe works well however you would prefer to cook it. We enjoyed the fish in these pictures and I believe you’ll appreciate dressing up whiting with some pecans and orange zest too. It makes one of nature’s treats extra special.
- 1 pound whiting fillets
- 1 can chopped pecans (fine, not crushed)
- 1/4 cup seasoned Panko bread crumbs
- 1 egg
- 1 tbsp milk
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Zest of one orange
- Lemon, lime or orange wedges
- Tarter sauce (regular or spicy)
- Peanut or safflower oil (if frying)
Cut fillets into serving-size pieces. Season with salt and pepper (to taste). Mix pecans, Panko, orange zest and parmesan. Mix egg and milk in a shallow bowl. Dip the fish pieces in the egg and milk mixture. Coat them with the pecan/Panko/parmesan/orange zest mixture and press to ensure it sticks to the fillets.
If cooking on grill, preheat the grill to medium heat. If cooking in oven, preheat the oven to 375 degrees, if frying, use just enough peanut or safflower oil to cover the bottom of the pan and preheat to medium heat.
Cook the fish until the pecan/Panko/parmesan coating is just beginning to brown. Only turn the fillets if you are frying and do it carefully at about 3 to 4 minutes. Continue cooking until the pecan/Panko/parmesan coating is medium brown; be careful not to overcook. The fish is done when it flakes with a fork.
Serve while hot with lemon and/or lime and/or orange wedges, tartar sauce or spicy tartar sauce.
My intention with this was to cook it on a vegetable tray on the grill, but a thunderstorm dampened those plans. As noted above, it can also be baked in the oven or fried and we cooked some both ways for this meal. A tip for baking this is to cover a cookie sheet or shallow pan with parchment paper and cook the fish on it.
This combines well with a variety of vegetables. Potatoes are a standard with fish and they can be baked or fried. Slaw is also a standard with fish, but a fresh green salad or lettuce wedge works well, too.
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