By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
The scene at the Blue Gill Restaurant in Baldwin County provided hope that Alabama is returning to some sort of normalcy after a long period of COVID-19 restrictions.
The Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF) Gulf Coast Wild Game Cook-Off, the first in two years, attracted a crowd to the venue on the Causeway to taste a variety of wild game dishes.
Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Commissioner Chris Blankenship is a big fan of the Cook-Offs and happy to see their return.
“I love the wild game cookoffs,” said Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “We are so blessed with game, fish and fowl in Alabama, and it is great to see people put their personal culinary touches on this bounty to create some unbelievably delicious dishes.”
The problem for the competing cooking teams in this year’s Cook-Off was keeping up with the demand as the crowd scarfed down dishes in three categories – game, fowl and fish.
Fortunately, I was among the nine judges who sampled the dishes and had to decide on a list of winners based on taste and originality. It was not an easy task.
In the game category, National Land Realty’s team scored the top spot with their Peach Venison Meatballs. The venison meatballs were simmered in a peach sauce with Conecuh sausage. Venison sliders took second and third in game with the Hen Hunters’ Sliding into Paradise taking the runner-up slot and Hooks Lane in third with its Hellcat Slick Head Sliders.
In the fowl division, the Sweet Heat Quail Poppers by Controlled Burn prevailed. The thin-sliced quail breasts were rolled with cream cheese and jalapeno slices in the middle and then wrapped in bacon and basted with a honey hot sauce before being seared over hot coals. Second place went to Tensaw Delta Waterfowl’s Seared Duck over Collards, and Dale Inc.’s Dontons took third.
The fish division provided category winners and the overall champ. Fairhope Fish House’s Swordfish Pastrami Reuben took the division and overall competition. Eastern Shore Ace Hardware’s Blackened Snapper with Cream Sauce took second, while Hiller Systems’ Causeway Catfish Gumbo was third. The Fairhope Fish House team advances to next year’s state cook-off finals.
The Swordfish Pastrami Reuben recipe was graciously shared in meticulous detail by Chef David Ramey of Red or White Wine and Gourmet Center in Fairhope.
“I had been thinking about treating a whole side of swordfish as if it were pastrami, and this was a great opportunity to go ahead with it,” Ramey said. “Brine it, rub it with cracked coriander, black pepper and garlic, then slow smoke it. I imagined the whole product from a day-boat sword prepared this way should give a meaty texture that will hold up to slicing, creating layers of sublime smoked, spiced freshness true to the sword’s flavor.
“After going over the details and seeing the reaction on Dustin’s (Bedgood of Fairhope Fish House) face I knew we were good to go and had the chance to make something delicious. All the props to Dustin for providing the freshest swordfish a chef like me can get his hands on.”
Fortunately for those at the cook-off, Bedgood had landed a 200-pound swordfish just days before the event. Ramey took the prime cuts near the collar off the fish and dropped them in a brine. The fish was pulled out of the brine the next day, seasoned with Ramey’s special spice mix and allowed to soak up the flavors overnight. On Sunday, Ramey placed the fish on his smoker over alder wood, which he likes because of its subtle flavor. He smoked the meat at 200 degrees for two hours, turning the fish every 30 minutes and adding more alder wood chips until the internal temperature of the fish reached 145 degrees. After smoking, he wrapped the fillets tightly in plastic wrap and dropped them in an ice-water bath for 15 minutes.
Ramey said the key is having fresh swordfish, whether you catch your own or buy it from a trusted fish house. Cut or ask for a swordfish loin about 12 inches in length and 2 inches thick.
Before the competition, Ramey baked caraway focaccia bread, prepared the slaw and made remoulade to top the sandwich.