Planning for your vacation sets the stage for getting the most out of your vacation, even if your plan is to be as lazy as you can be.
When my family vacations we tend to plan in two stages. The first stage is all about thinking ahead to: what will we need for the trip and what will we need when we get there. The second stage is all about what are we going to do when we get there (activities).
For a number of reasons, the fishing isn’t quite that good anymore, but North Carolina waters are still among the most productive there are and while visiting the Outer Banks, there is fresh seafood that is better and with more selection than almost any market or store farther inland.
We’ve put together a list of some of the fish and shellfish that our local fishermen land from time to time with a very brief description of how to prepare them. We have also included a list of local seafood markets.
Some Fish to Contemplate
Although the TV program Wicked Tuna has made it seem as though bluefin tuna are everywhere in the waters of the Gulf Stream, yellowfin tuna is the catch of the day at area seafood markets.
An offshore species, yellowfin is often found swimming in the Gulf Stream and is a favorite of sport fishermen.
Available fresh year round, yellowfin tuna is the steak of the seafood world. Really…cook it just like a steak. Raw tuna is frequently used in sushi recipes as well.
A note about imported Yellowfin Tuna: The deep red color of fresh tuna is one way to tell if it is fresh enough for sashimi. To stabilize the color, imported yellowfin will sometimes be injected with carbon dioxide as soon as it is caught. The carbon dioxide stops the process that changes the deep, rich red color of the flesh to a brown shade, making the tuna steak look fresh. The gas does nothing to stop the growth of bacteria or spoilage. Outer Banks commercial fishing and fish houses do not use carbon dioxide on their catch.
Sleek and an incredibly fast swimming fish—speeds up to 60 mph have been recorded—wahoo is a highly sought after game fish. Because it does not swim in schools, it is usually caught as bycatch, so seeing it at a local market is treat.
A firm white fleshed fish, the flavor is mild and slightly sweet. One of the few white fish that will hold up to grilling.
Another solitary predator fish, cobia will sometimes way over 100 pounds, although most cobia that is caught is in the 30-40 pound range—which is still a good-sized fish. Cobia are often caught from the end of a pier, and it will sometimes venture into the Outer Banks sounds seeking crab, one of its favorite foods.
Another firm fleshed white fish, it’s flavor is similar to Wahoo, but little more complex. Grill it, sauté it…enjoy.
Also called dolphinfish or dorado. A colorful body and a flattened face make this one of the most distinctive looking fish. When young, Mahi-mahi is a schooling fish. When mature, they tend to swim in pairs or alone. As a consequence, small mahi is more common commercially.
The flesh is slightly pink in color, with a hint of sweetness. Mild, it picks up flavors very well. Put it on the grill or use it with a marinade.
There are three kinds of flounder that swim in Outer Banks waters—summer flounder, southern flounder and gulf flounder. Summer flounder and southern flounder are by far the more common. Surf and sound fishing is more likely to land southern flounder, which prefer nearshore waters and estuaries.
A very mild flaky white fish, founder is ideal for broiling or frying.
North Carolina oysters are making a comeback. Over fishing and bad management practices almost wiped out the stock, but in the last five years, they have become available again. The oysters are almost all farm raised.
Like wine, the taste of an oyster changes dramatically depending on where it was raised. Oysters coming from the Nags Head and Wanchese area tend to be mild, almost sweet. Oysters raised farther south, where the water is saltier, have a saltier flavor and a bit stronger flavor.
Fried, in soups or stews, baked, steamed or even raw…oysters are always good.
One of the most important estuarine species, fresh shrimp is available from late spring into fall.
Slightly sweet, with a snap in the texture, fresh shrimp is so much better than the farm raised, frozen product coming from foreign countries that it’s almost as though they are two different species.
There are so many ways to enjoy shrimp that we can’t list them all, although raw is not recommended.
Most Outer Banks seafood markets are seasonal. Carawan and O’Neal’s Sea Harvest are open year round, but even they restrict their hours in the offseason. Especially in the spring and fall, call to confirm hours of operation.
Supermarkets will often feature fresh seafood, but it is rarely local. Large supermarket chains often have distribution requirements that local fish houses can’t match.
We’re listing only the seafood markets north of Oregon Inlet.
Bluewater Seafood Market
501 Old Stoney Rd, Corolla
807 Ocean Trail, Corolla
Dockside North Seafood Market
Though Orville went hungry, other Bankers did a better job of making do with what was around them. Potatoes and onions grew well in the sandy soil, and they kept over winter in dry storage. These root vegetables still the basis of Outer Banks soups and stews.
Red meat and dairy were of little interest to Bankers because they couldn’t be kept without cold storage. That’s why you won’t find cream in North Carolina chowders. However, wild boar was common, so bacon was occasionally on the menu. Why is there so much corn in Outer Banks cuisine? Fishermen would trade shrimp to inland farmers in exchange for corn, which their families used in recipes and corn-based quick breads.
Bankers largely subsisted on clams, oysters, small oily fish such as herring, and larger fish such as drum. Fish was usually prepared boiled, though small fish were preserved through salting.
Outer Banks cuisine has a distinct flavor that is tied to the history of the islands and the people. Modern cooking techniques and the availability of spices likely made improvements on early 20th-century recipes, but the heart and soul of traditional Outer Banks food has endured.
When you’re in the Outer Banks, try local dishes and take advantage of daily specials, and you’ll be eating the way Bankers have eaten for over a century. If you’re temporarily exiled from the islands while planning your next vacation, here are some of our favorite local recipes:
Sam and Omie’s Clam Chowder