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History and Hogfish from Matlacha Pass
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
By: Eric Taubert

Hogfish (also called Hog Snapper) is a well-kept secret, the "Cadillac"
of the local fresh-fish scene, a true South-Florida delicacy. It is
considered by many serious seafood aficionados to be one of the
tastiest of all reef fish.



Hogfish is highly-prized for it’s
firm, alabaster flesh which flakes apart nicely. The flavor is mild
with subtle sweet undertones. Although many purists would maintain it
should only be prepared pan-seared with a little olive oil, salt and
pepper, Hogfish is a very versatile fish and works well whether baked,
grilled, marinated, or smothered in a tasty sauce.

Whether you’re a tourist visiting Southwest Florida, or a year-round resident
who loves great food – Hogfish is a must-find if you’re looking to
experience the pristine flavor of our native seafood. This is a meal
worth seeking out for the memory of it alone….and seek it out you
must, as Hogfish is also one of the hardest dishes to locate on local
menus and at local seafood markets. You won’t find it at your local
Publix Grocery Store or at your favorite chain restaurant. When
restaurants and fish markets do feature Hogfish, they tend to sell out
quickly. But if you do your homework and ask around, in the end you’ll
locate one of the few local hot spots which have a steady supply of
this glorious fish. Either that or you could take up the hobby of
spearfishing.

Today I’ll share a local secret with you…Andy’s Island Seafood in Matlacha has a semi-sporadic supply of Hogfish.

The other great thing about visiting Andy’s Island Seafood is the journey
to Matlacha itself. I generally visit mid-morning and take the
opportunity to slow down and enjoy my Southwest Florida lifestyle while
I’m there.



On my recent visit, I didn’t see any Hogfish. I
asked if they had any, and several beautiful specimens were procured
from their back room. Andy’s Island Seafood will also fillet whatever
fish you purchase (with or without the skin) at no additional charge.
I had them filet my Hogfish, and the two fish I purchased were packed
up in the form of four perfect fillets ready for quick and hassle-free
cooking at home.

I’m one of those forward-thinking Floridians
who keeps a cooler filled with ice in my trunk….especially when I’m
heading to the fish store in Matlacha. That way, I can stow my
purchase in the car and spend some time playing tourist amidst the
water and fresh air. Places like this one are one of the benefits of
living in the sun-drenched playground we call home and we should never
stop enjoying all they have to offer.

Andy’s Island Seafood is conveniently located at the east end of the bridge over Matlacha Pass.
This is hallowed ground to fishermen in the know. Matlacha pass has
dual tidal flow, from the north and the south. This moving water
creates the currents responsible for the legendary fishing reputation
of the local area. The Matlacha Pass Bridge was given the nickname
"the Fishingest Bridge in the World" by army troops stationed at Fort
Myers’ Page Field during World War II who fished there on their days
off. There’s nary a date or hour of day during which anglers cannot be
seen at the railing with their rods in hand and hope on their faces.
It can get busy. During tarpon season the place becomes a veritable
carnival.

Today, I decide to walk across the "Fishingest Bridge in the World" before I head home.

The atmosphere of Matlacha hearkens to the days when small fishing
villages were all that populated the Southwest coast of Florida. It’s
got a certain seafaring charm. This is a place of boats, and sun, and
shoreline, and art. This is condensed Old Florida, not a theme park
replica or a high-priced new development. Places like these are few
and far between, endangered experiences quickly going extinct. This
whole stretch of road is populated with small, family-owned
businesses. If you’re looking for the redundant corporate chains which
choke the roadsides of most of America, then you’ve come to the wrong
place. This is a place characterized by colorful diversity. Here
you’ll see tourist families looking for an authentic Florida
experience, rednecks in pickup trucks, well-heeled recreational fishing
enthusiasts, scraggly artists, and blue-collar workers.

The Matlacha Pass Bridge has had more than it’s own fifteen minutes of
fame. Around 1925, Lee County began dredging shell fill from the
oyster beds of Matlacha Pass for use in the construction of a road they
were building to connect the mainland to Pine Island. The abundance of
the shell fill they dredged created a mass of land heretofore not
existing on any maps. A wooden swing bridge was put in place across
Matlacha Pass in 1927.

Shortly thereafter, the Great Depression began and a group of squatters moved onto the excess shell fill. They
didn’t have much, but the excellent fishing provided food and made this
small parcel of land an attractive option to homelessness. The
squatters began in tents and cars, eventually building shacks,
shanties, and stilt houses. Over time they developed a full scale
fishing industry on this unclaimed land. At one point there was a
showdown with the local government and the squatters emerged
victorious. The land was deeded to them by the government through
homestead rights. Thus the legendary fishing village of Matlacha was
born. This entire drama is documented in Richard Powell’s novel,
"Pioneer, Go Home!" (1959). The novel then became an Elvis Presley
movie called "Follow That Dream" (1962).

The wooden swing bridge over Matlacha Pass was replaced with the present day concrete
draw-bridge in 1969. Plans to replace the existing bridge with an
identical one because of it’s age are purportedly under way.

At the base of the bridge is the Bridge Water Inn. This remarkably quirky
hotel is as unique as they come. It’s built on a pier and all the
rooms are located directly over Matlacha Pass water. A fisherman’s
fond dream, you can walk out of your room onto the deck and drop a line
into some of the best fishing waters Florida has available.

Before you get onto the bridge, you’ll surely notice the bright red "Island
Time Zone Begins Here" sign. It’s a concept which can be hard to grasp
for those not from the area. Loosely translated it means, "Leave your
rush behind." If you came here to hurry, the only person you’ll end up
frustrating is yourself. We don’t mind.

There’s still one short stretch where fishing’s not allowed. The Matlacha Pass Bridge is a
working drawbridge over a well traveled waterway, so the highest point
of the bridge is posted as off-limits.

The salt air and tropical sights will put you in an islandy mood. The water is deep blue.
Dolphins are a common site. These are scenes you’ve never seen outside
of Jimmy Buffet songs.
Shipwreck in Matlacha Pass


The lodging options are a colorful lot. No Hilton Hotels here. These are
genuine Pine Island digs. Want an extended stay, perhaps you could
rent a mobile home at the Sea Isle Resort?

A couple small gift shops dot the roadside as well. These aren’t the
glittering and neon trinket superstores of most modern destinations.
These are just as salty and homespun as the rest of Matlacha. Don’t be
surpised if you find some smoked mullet spread aside the key chain or
t-shirts for sale.

Matlacha is a magical place. It’s a walkable
neighborhood with history and an abundance of authentic Florida charm.
This is as close as you’ll get to the Old-Florida experience without
paying an admission fee. And it’s the only place to go if you want the
freshest fish available.

Allow me to share my Hogfish recipe with you:

This is a great way to serve Hogfish. It’s part tropical and part southern. The sauce is almost more of a warm
tropical salsa in texture. The bite of the chile powder, crushed red
pepper and cajun spice are a natural fit for the lime and pineapple
acidity.

Cooking fish can seem complicated to someone with no
prior experience. This recipe makes it easy-as-ever with a non-stick
skillet.

Plan on 20+ minutes to reduce the sauce over low
temperatures. Once you begin cooking the fish, it’s done in just a few
minutes.



INGREDIENTS
4 – 6 to 7 oz. Hogfish fillets (skin off)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 an onion, diced
1/4 red bell pepper, diced
1/4 green bell pepper, diced
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 large clove garlic, diced
Juice from half a lime
8 oz. can of Dole Pineapple Tidbits
1 tablespoon mild sweet chili sauce (Asian product)
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon chile powder
4 Tablespoons butter (2 for fish, 2 for sauce)
1/2 cup flour
1/2 tablespoon seasoned salt or Cajun spice
Kosher Salt
Black Pepper

PROCESS

Make the sauce
1. In a small saucepan, warm olive oil over medium heat.
2. Saute onion, bell pepper and bell pepper for 4-6 minutes, then add garlic.
3. Saute garlic with onion mixture for another 30 seconds.
4. Add fresh squeezed lime juice, pineapple tidbits (with liquid),
sweet chili sauce, brown sugar, and chili powder to onion mixture.
Stir well.
5. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring often, for 15+
minutes, until pineapple has broken down and liquid is reduced to a
syrup. Be careful not to burn during last few minutes.
6. Stir in 2 tablespoons of butter, until melted. Reduce heat to low.

Cook the fish

1. Melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a non-stick skillet over medium high heat.
1. Season the Hogfish fillets with kosher salt and black pepper.
2. Mix seasoned salt or Cajun spice in with flour.
3. Dredge Hogfish fillets in seasoned flour.
5. Once butter in pan is melted and sizzling, add Hogfish fillets to pan.
6. Cook 2-4 minutes on each side, or until fish is cooked through.
7. Plate fish and scoop Pineapple Chili Lime Sauce over fillets. Garnish with slice of lime.
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