Welcome to summer. Yep, that’s right. The days are long, and the temperatures are already rising, even though summer doesn’t officially arrive until June 21. The weather isn’t the only thing that’s heating up; so is fishing, and one of the coastal favorites is flounder. This month’s recipe uses flounder in a pasta salad that can be eaten while still warm or chilled to help take the edge off the day.
Flounder are a favorite of many fishermen; they can be caught from the backwaters to the nearshore ocean. Regulations vary between the Carolinas, but fishermen catch them from Nags Head to Hilton Head, and they are a favorite, both for catching and eating. Many folks who say they don’t care for fish will admit they like the mild flavor of flounder.
Catching flounder in inshore waters can be relaxing, but it still gets the adrenaline going when that first thump resonates up the line and through the rod. Some fishermen believe their success improves when they put the rod in a rod holder and can’t jerk before the flounder has the bait well into its mouth. This changes a little in the nearshore ocean, where many fishermen prefer jigging bucktails tipped with soft plastics. This requires more effort on the fisherman’s part but still provides fresh tender flatfish to prepare in a variety of ways.
I don’t often eat fried foods, and that’s the way many folks like to prepare fish, especially flounder. I bake it, broil it and cook it on the grill, but this is a way I found to add a little punch to its otherwise mild flavor while making a dish that is light and refreshing. Pasta is a good addition, and using the vegetable version with a combination of peppers gives it a burst of color while making it even healthier and tastier.
Fishing began early this year after the mild winter, and it has continued to improve. There have been good catches of nice, fat flounder along the entire coast, so not having time to go is the only excuse for not having fresh flounder. If that’s the case, your local fish market should be able to set you up with some of the previous night’s haul.
I like salads and pasta salads that include a highlighted meat, and this fills that bill. The taco seasoning is used in lieu of all but a pinch of salt. A couple of options might better suit your personal taste. You know I won’t mind if you personalize this a bit. I trust you will enjoy this, as it contains a mixture of things that are good individually, and you regular readers know my feeling is that things that taste good individually often taste good combined.
Flounder taco pasta salad
This is a recipe that began during a “What if” session one evening after a fishing trip that was fair, not good. The quest began while joking about how to stretch a 11/2- to 2-pound flounder into a meal for four or more people. A flounder that size yields about a pound of meat, so there would need to be significant stretching.
The first suggestions involved making a lot of slaw, French fries and hush puppies to go with it, then the conversation moved to casseroles and pasta salads. I like pasta and pasta salads, and that idea stuck with me. The first couple of attempts weren’t bad, but they steered me in this direction, and folks who have tried this seem to like it. This serves well either warm or chilled, and I prefer it chilled, especially on a hot, summer day. Regular readers know I can’t let something sit, and I already have an idea, so another variation will be likely, in the not too-distant future.
I consider flounder mild almost to the point of being bland, so I began by looking for something to add some flavor. One night, while eating fish tacos, the idea of using taco seasoning for flavoring the flounder and pairing it with pasta came rushing in, and I had to give it a try. Once in the store looking at the pastas, the vegetable pastas caught my eye for their healthier qualities and colors. While food has to taste good, I like for it to look good, too.
As I mentioned earlier, there have been several generations of this recipe, but I think this is the one that is mild enough for folks who don’t care for spicy foods, yet with enough flavor those of us with more robust palates enjoy it, too. Needless to say, I’d kick it up a notch or two if making it just for myself and friends with a similar affinity for spicy food, but this suffices surprisingly well.
As with many of my recipes, there are built in ways to make it milder or bolder, and I’m happy when people experiment and let me know what they did and how it tasted. Three easy ways to do this are to use mild or hot Ro-tel instead of the salt-free, to use more or less taco seasoning and to omit the jalapeno or add a second one. I add some of the water drained off the Ro-tel to help simmer the taco seasoning, and it has a little bite from the chilies. Using plain water for this would make it milder.
The next time your fishing trip falls short of producing enough fillets for a fish fry, give this a try. Even though you prepare it inside, once chilled, it makes a tasty, light meal to enjoy on your deck or patio on a summer evening while watching the sunset.
1 pound flounder fillets
12 ounces of pasta. I prefer the vegetable rotini mix.
1/2 medium sweet onion
1 3-pack of colored baby bell peppers
1 can Ro-tel no-salt diced tomatoes and green chilies
1/2 cup Mexican taco seasoned shredded cheese
4 tbsp taco seasoning. I prefer reduced salt.
1 pinch pink salt
2 tbsp olive oil
Crackers or tortilla chips
Optional: extra cheese or chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
Cook pasta according to directions. I add a splash of olive oil to the pasta water to help prevent it from sticking when chilled. Drain pasta. Chop onion medium. Remove seeds and chop jalapeno and baby bells fine. Drain the Ro-tel and save the water.
Cut flounder into small pieces. Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in skillet and add onion and salt. When onion glazes lightly, add jalapeno, flounder, taco seasoning and several tablespoons of the Ro-tel water. Cook several minutes, stirring well. Stir in the baby bells and cook five to eight minutes, stirring often. The fish should glaze and be just before flaking. Stir in the Ro-tel and simmer for about one or two minutes, stirring well. Add the cooked pasta and mix well while continuing to simmer for another minute or so. If the mixture appears to be drying out, add a couple of tablespoons of the Ro-tel water. Remove to a bowl and stir in the cheese until mixed well.
This serves well warm after just being fixed or after chilling a few hours in the refrigerator. I prefer it chilled, especially on a hot summer day. Serve this with tortilla chips or crackers. It also goes well with a green salad or a lettuce wedge. I like to sprinkle a little cheese over the pasta when serving it. Some friends like to garnish lightly with freshly chopped Cilantro. I’m not a big fan of cilantro, but will offer the suggestion.