Charlestonians say that their harbor is located where the Ashley and Cooper rivers come together to form the Atlantic Ocean. Their chauvinism notwithstanding, Charleston is an important port, which sits above the thirty-second parallel, like other famous ports: Nagasaki, Japan’s westernmost harbor; Tel Aviv and Tripoli on the Mediterranean; Casablanca on the Atlantic and San Diego on the Pacific; and Shanghai, with whom she has traded for three hundred years. Seafood is quite naturally an important food.

Fish has come to mean a lot more than it did in early Charleston, with the advent of offshore and deep-sea fishing and with flash-freezers aboard the fishing vessels that now bring denizens of the deep to shore after several days out. It also means farming, so that freshwater catfish, trout, and bass, once enjoyed only by fishermen (strict state wildlife laws prohibit the sales of game—even “farm-raised”—and freshwater fish), are now available to both the home cook and restaurants. Though we have seen the numbers of some fishes decimated, particularly the anadromous species such as sturgeon and herring, the modern world has literally brought formerly unknown fish to our shore, iced and fresh enough that we might enjoy it raw, as sashimi, rather than overcooking, which was the norm in the days before refrigeration and internal combustion. According to publications of the South Carolina Wildlife and Marine Resources Department, the commercial value of finfish has exceeded that of blue crabs, clams, and oysters combined since 1981, largely because of the establishment of a resident fleet of offshore snapper-grouper vessels in 1976.

In the Lowcountry there are several inland cypress swamps, with their sinuous black rivers; there are myriad ponds and former rice impoundments; and there are two of the largest man-made lakes in the world, all full of fish.

These are the most contemporary of my recipes, because fish cookery has evolved a more sophisticated, yet simpler style as the varieties available have proliferated. Cobia, for example, is not even mentioned in most fish cookbooks. Taken at offshore buoys, these thirty-pounders have elongated bodies and flattened heads like catfish and shark. I’ll never forget my first sight of a cobia off Edisto when I was nine years old, cabin boy to my father and his cigar-smoking, beer-drinking buddies: tossed about and lightheaded from the roll of the boat, the engine fumes, and tobacco smoke, I immediately sobered in view of that sharklike cobia. The previous summer I had first tasted marlin in Panama, cubed and simply pan-fried in butter. The white, firm flesh of my first cobia was cooked in imitation of that marlin every night that week, and to this day I remember its nutty, sweet richness. This local “crab eater,” a treat to be shared with the finest of friends, is occasionally available.

Even though I live on the coast and have fish and shellfish stock on hand, I find it wise to see what is the finest and freshest—the most appealing—at the seafood market before planning my menu. Remember: clear eyes, bright red gills, and a clean, fresh smell are the signs of fresh fish. Have your fishmonger clean the fish for you if you will, but always save the heads and bones for stock. Be sure to ask him to remove the gills as well; some of them don’t automatically do it, and it can be difficult for the novice.
If you are a fisherman, gut the fish and ice it immediately upon capture, but do not scale it as the scales will help keep the flesh fresh and firm. I’ve included two ways to cook fish over three pounds with the scales on. Be sure to save any roe that you find: even strongly flavored roe can be delicious when mixed with sausage. If you have friends who bring you fish, be sure to gut it immediately upon receiving it, keep it well iced, and cook it as soon as possible.
I cook all fish very simply, whether fried, steamed, baked, smoked, grilled, cured, or stewed. The rule is the same to test for doneness, no matter which cooking technique or fish you’re using: gently pry the meat with a fork. It is done when it flakes moistly from the bone. With practice, you will learn to tell by touch alone.
The basic cooking methods are followed by notes about some Lowcountry fish and specific ways to cook them.

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