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SC Fresh Catch: Triggerfish

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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South Carolina menus and seafood markets are brimming with fresh catch from our coastal waters. Included in the treasure trove of local offerings is triggerfish and it deserves your full attention.

Once considered “trash fish,” the triggerfish ascended the hierarchy of SC fishdom to assume a place of honor among chefs, fishmongers and fishermen. Easy to clean and prepare, the wide, flat fish delivers a sweet filet of white, flaky meat.

Cleaning involves removing scales and a good rinse. Trim away any dark flesh. Because it’s not as thick as, say, grouper, you’ll want to leave the skin intact on one side to keep the filet together in one piece. When eating, use a fork to separate the cooked flesh from the skin. You can also peel away the skin prior to cooking, careful to leave the clear membrane beneath—enough to hold everything together in the skillet or on the grill.

Chef Jamie Daskalis, the executive chef of Myrtle Beach’s Johnny D’s Waffles and a 2020 South Carolina Chef Ambassador, was recently approached by Wicked Inlet Seafood owner Dylan Foster to create recipes for local varieties of fish. The timing was just right and her imagination took the lead.

“I just recently started to cook more fish at home in an effort to broaden my horizons and learn some new dishes and techniques for cooking new proteins,” she said. “So, this was a great opportunity for me.”

She decided to begin with the frisky triggerfish, which is known for posing a challenge to even the most skilled fishermen.

“Triggerfish may be tricky to catch, but the fight is well worth it,” Daskalis said. “It is probably one of the tastiest fish you will ever try. The white meat, that tastes similar to crab meat when cooked, will bring depth of flavor to your dish. The sweetness is similar to grouper, but unique in its own way.”

After a little time in the kitchen, Chef Jamie was ready to unveil her South Carolina-centric creation: Pan-Seared Triggerfish with Blistered Tomato Bruschetta over White Rice.

“It’s delicious, with a sweet, yet acidic blistered tomato bruschetta,” she said. “This simple, yet elevated dish will have you believing you are eating in a fancy restaurant right at home.”

Daskalis recommends using the Carolina Plantation brand of white rice, a product grown in the Pee Dee region of the state. The aromatic rice beautifully enhances the South Carolina flavors of the dish. It can be found in the local section of most grocery stores or you can order it on the Carolina Plantation website and have it shipped to your home.

Find fresh triggerfish at coastal seafood operations like Wicked Inlet Seafood. You can also check inland shops known for stocking fresh fish from SC waters. Once you snag your fresh catch of triggerfish, try your hand at making Chef Jamie’s original dish.

Pan-Seared Triggerfish with Blistered Tomato Bruschetta over Rice
For the fish:
2 triggerfish filets, 7-9 ounces each
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Kosher salt, as needed
Black pepper, as needed

For the rice:
2 cups water
¾ cup Carolina Plantation aromatic white rice
pinch of ground coriander
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons unsalted butter

For the bruschetta:
2 teaspoons olive oil
¼ cup red onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1½ cups cherry tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Juice of 1 lemon
3 to 4 leaves of fresh mint, chopped
5 to 6 leaves of fresh basil, chopped

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Remove the fish from the refrigerator and place on a plate lined with paper towels. Pat the fish filets completely dry and allow to rest on the counter. Prepare your onion, garlic and tomato for the bruschetta and set aside, keeping the tomato separate.

Prepare your rice: In a small saucepot, bring 2 cups water, coriander, salt, pepper and butter to a simmer, then stir in rice. Bring the rice to a gentle simmer, reducing heat to a low flame, just enough to hold the simmer. Cover and allow to simmer for about 18 to 20 minutes until tender. When it is ready, set aside covered. Fluff very gently with a fork when you are ready to serve.

In a large oven-safe skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil and swirl it around the pan. Allow the oil to get very hot, but not smoking. Carefully wipe the pan with a few dry paper towels, making sure to completely grease up the pan. (This will season your pan and help keep the fish from sticking.) With the pan still hot over a high-medium heat, heat the remainder of the oil and all the butter until the butter starts to simmer. The oil-butter mixture should not be turning brown or smoking, but it must be hot. Quickly, generously season the top side of your fish filets with salt and pepper and place seasoned side down. Then season the top side of the fish with salt and pepper.

After about 10 to 15 seconds, gently slide a spatula under both fish filets and move them a touch to make sure the fish is not sticking. If your pan was hot enough, a nice sear should already be starting and you should not have any trouble. Once the butter starts to brown slightly, tilt your pan and start spooning the butter over the top of the fish, about 5 to 7 times each. Let your fish cook for 3 minutes and then carefully flip. Spoon more butter over the cooked side. Allow to cook for 1 minute and slide the pan into the oven to finish cooking the center of the fish.

Next, work on your bruschetta topping. In a small, preferably nonstick pan, heat 2 teaspoons of oil, over a high-medium heat and add the onions and garlic and cook for 45 to 60 seconds, until the garlic starts to brown. Add the halved tomatoes, season with a little salt and pepper and toss. (Check the fish for doneness as it may be ready before the bruschetta. You will know when your dish is done when the center of the fish easily flakes apart.) Once the tomatoes start to blister, add the vinegar and lemon juice, tossing to incorporate, and allow to simmer for about 30 to 45 seconds. Add half the basil and mint, toss then remove from heat.

Once your fish is ready, separate the rice on two plates, top each with a filet of fish and divide the blistered bruschetta over both. Garnish with the remaining basil and mint.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.