Thursday, September 18, 2014

What's A Sheepshead?

When you are feeding on crabs, oysters, shrimp, mussels, barnacles, and anything else in the ocean with a hard shell, you're going to need a good set of chompers, and teeth are usually the first thing you notice when glancing at the sheepshead bream.  The sheepshead will certainly not win any beauty contests!  It gets its name from the sheep-like facial features it possesses, namely huge human-like teeth jutting from a gapping jaw.  Though the teeth are vital for crushing tasty shellfish into nutritious meals, the sheepshead has also been known to dine on vegetable matter.

The sheepshead is a relative of the bream family and besides its mouth, can also be easily recognized by the 5 to 6 black stripes running horizontal to its body.  This is how it gets its other name: the convict fish.  Sheepshead can be found hanging around jetties, pilings, and other obstructions, and many have been caught off piers by hobbyist anglers.  They live all along the East Coast of the United States, but most commercial landings occur in North Carolina and Florida.  

The flesh of sheepshead is quite delicious.  You are what you eat and the sheepshead's diet consists mostly of shellfish, so they tend to have a sweet, shellfish flavor and firm, moist flesh.  The white fillets can be easily seared, pan fried, or baked.  They cook very similar to dorade or flounder, with a little more bite and much more flavor.  Once the armor-like scales have been removed, the skin is exceptionally savory.  So why aren't more people eating sheepshead?  Most likely it has to do with the fact that breaking down the whole fish proves to be a difficult task.  The sheepshead's scales are extremely large and durable and their belly cavity can require more care than usual to maneuver safely around.  They also have dangerously sharp gill plates and prickly spines.

The good news is that fish markets and restaurants will do all the hard work for you.  As October approaches, we will see more and more of the sheepshead available.  It's a delicious, underutilized species that I hope will gain some traction in the American seafood conscious, giving other more popular species a break.  Sheepshead are good for you, they taste great, and they are totally sustainable, so who cares if they're ugly?