Sep. 17--PANAMA CITY -- With copious options from St. Andrew Bay and the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, there's no reason not to enjoy the freshest seafood.
Boats are unloading fresh local seafood daily at Tarpon Dock Seafood Market, 234 E. Beach Drive, the storefront for Greg Abrams Seafood.
"There's different boats for different fish. Each boat is rigged for a different species.Tuna boats, and then they'll be rigged for grouper," said Tarpon Dock Seafood Market employee Kenny Hayes, who added the boat goes out 16-20 miles for red snapper. "We got some swordfish in the market today. The tuna boat catches swordfish and tuna."
On Sept. 12, the Leo B was unloading fresh yellowfin tuna -- No. 1 sushi grade, at Tarpon Dock.
"We don't have a middle man. We ship all over the country," Hayes said. "When I left there this morning, we had black grouper, scamp, red and yellowedge, red snapper, tuna, salmon and swordfish."
The market also sells swordfish, which Hayes recommends grilling, Bay and Gulf shrimp, including Key West Pinks, and scallops, plus lobster, stone crab and crawfish in season.
"I like all of it," Hayes said. "We have flounder to go too. We get 'em whole and we can clean 'em. If I'm going to fry them, I leave it whole and cut it with diamonds across the top, or split and butterfly the back and fill it full with stuffing."
Get oysters by the pints and bags, along with crab meat and a selection of freshly made seafood dips -- even daily specials.
"We always have our dips," Hayes said.
For nearly four decades, Hayes worked behind the scenes in the kitchens of beloved seafood restaurants -- but now he's gone to the source. Hayes has been behind the counter at Tarpon Dock for the past year and a half. The market not only supplies local residents and restaurants with fresh local seafood, but also ships nationwide as a wholesale distributor.
"I've known Greg a long time," said Hayes, who worked with Abrams when he supplied Boon Docks in Panama City Beach with seafood.
Hayes worked at Boon Docks, which is still serving seafood dockside at 14854 Bay View Circle by State 79, in Panama City Beach for 18 years. But Hayes got his start long before that.
"I started at Whistling Oyster (in Southport) when I was 14, after school," said Hayes, who then worked at Penny's Seafood in Southport. "By 16 or 17, I was the only cook they had."
Hayes worked in the kitchen at Penny's from 1983 till 2001.
"Shovelnose was abundant at Penny's," Hayes recalled. "Usually you don't see that now; divers keep those for themselves. Cut into little pieces and dip in batter and fry 30 seconds; it's all they need."
By the time Hayes started his journey at Boon Docks, he already had garnered a following for his preparation of fresh seafood.
On Sept. 12, Hayes' fans got to see him in action. Hayes brought fresh Key West Pink and Bay Shrimp, red and yellowedge grouper to Somethin's Cookin', 93 E. 11th St., to share his seafood techniques during his first cooking class.
"We've been following Kenny around with his cooking," said Karen Chappell, who attended Saturday's class with her husband, Ron Chappell, to learn some of his tips.
"We've been following him back since Penny's -- around 30 years," Ron added.
When it comes to cooking seafood, Hayes makes it look easy -- but that's come from years of hard work and experience with what works.
"I like to do simple. I like to fry and grill and smoke," said Hayes, who admitted he's never baked fish. "Cooking's easy. A lot of people take it too serious."
And just like family recipes that have been passed down for generations, you have to watch him in action to learn his recipes.
"I don't write anything down," said Hayes, as he waited for the canola oil to heat to 350 degrees in the pot on the stove. "I don't time stuff; just look at it."
He didn't have much of a preference between canola, vegetable or peanut oil, which is "good for high heat." The biggest thing is keeping the temperature consistent.
"I get it to 350 degrees because it will be about 340 degrees when you put (seafood) in; it cools off," Hayes said. "Only put six (pieces of seafood) in at a time because it cools it a little. Don't overcrowd them."
On Saturday, he was frying the shrimp and fish in McEwen & Sons fish batter. But he admitted, he doesn't always use the same brand of seafood breader, sometimes opting for Atkinson's and Zatarain's.
"I leave the fish and shrimp damp, and then put it straight in," said Hayes, who has never put an egg wash on it. "All I use the breader for is to brown the seafood. ... Just shake it off and stick it right in. You can add Old Bay or Slap Ya Mama seasoning to the mix for a little extra kick."
He also noted that the red grouper when fried gets a little browner than the yellowedge grouper.
"The secret to seafood is when to take them out of the grease, because when you take them out they're still cooking," Hayes said.
And if you're doing large quantities, such as for a restaurant, you have to have plenty of stations and fryers to keep plenty of small batches going.
Frying took a matter of minutes.
"Some people say red (grouper) is more fishy (than the yellowedge), but no one notices when both fried," said Hayes, who mentioned the whiter yellowedge usually runs a couple more dollars per pound than the red grouper.
"It's right up there with scamp most of the time," Hayes said.
But some members of the class, including Ann Miller, still preferred the fried yellowedge over the red -- "It's lighter."
The biggest thing I noticed was the lightness of the breading -- just enough to bring out the flavor and add a little crust.
"It's such a light way to do it," said Brian Alexander, who had joined Pam Adams for their first cooking class.
Hayes added, "And to me, it holds less grease."
And what goes great with fried seafood -- tartar sauce.
"Boon Docks has had our favorite tartar sauce in the world," Alexander said.
To make tartar sauce at home, Hayes suggested mixing mayonnaise with sweet pickle relish, a little horseradish, lemon juice and Worcestershire -- adjusting amounts according to taste. Though he doesn't think it makes much difference when it comes to most of the brands, mayonnaise is a different story.
"I'll tell you what I like. Duke's is the best," he said.
For dipping, Somethin's Cookin' owner Hannelore Holland also offered some of Robert Rothschild Roasted Pineapple and Habanero sauce, which she serves with her crab cakes and Bistro Salad -- topped with her housemade Balsamic Vinaigrette.
Andrea Barwick, who was enjoying the shrimp with the sauce, said, "This would even be good on a taco."
For the grilled grouper and shrimp, Hayes just poured a little canola oil into a cast-iron grill pan and sprinkled it with Capt. Anderson's House Seasoning -- cooking it till it was no longer translucent.
"I love the way you do one side, not overpowering," Alexander said.
Capt. Anderson's Restaurant in Panama City Beach is just one of the area restaurants the market supplies.
"We furnish Capt. Anderson's with yellowedge, scamp and tuna," said Hayes, who added Tarpon Dock also supplies fresh seafood to Saltwater Grill, Firefly, Wicked Wheel, Triple J Seafood & Steaks, Beau's, Ferrucci and Somethin's Cookin' -- just to name a few.
Somethin's Cookin' uses the Bay Shrimp in their Shrimp Quiche, the St. Andrews Shrimp Salad (where it's mixed with remoulade and celery) and on the Shrimp BLT: Fresh Bay Shrimp with remoulade, lettuce and tomato and crisp bacon on toasted sourdough bread.
"All our seafood comes from Tarpon Dock," said Holland, whose husband, Bill, fancies the Bay Shrimp.
"Bay Shrimp always been my favorite; they're sweeter," Bill admitted.
And Hayes likes them best on the bistro's Shrimp BLT.
"I'll tell you what I love -- their Shrimp BLT," Hayes said. "Sometimes Bill comes in two times a day. He loves our Bay Shrimp."
When Hayes eats shrimp at home, he likes to fry it outside in his Bayou grill fryer that holds 35 pounds of oil.
"When I do fish, I always do cheese grits -- fish and grits or shrimp and grits, you can't beat it," Hayes said. "I like mild cheddar or smoked Gouda grits -- so good."
Hayes recommends about half a pound of fish per person when cooking at home -- maybe 4 and half pounds for four people to be safe.
"It doesn't hurt to have leftovers," he admitted. "And 21/25 count is a good size for shrimp. Big shrimp, 10/15 count, I like for taking with some asparagus and wrapping it in bacon and putting it on the grill."
The Bay Shrimp get even pinker than the Key West Pinks when they cook.
"Bay Shrimp are hard to beat," Hayes admitted. "They boil red and pretty in shell. I like to leave the heads on and boil them and after I cook them, I take the heads off; it adds more flavor."
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