Cobia (a saltwater fish related to the perch family) came into the Leposky household by happenstance.
My husband, George Leposky (Miami Travel Examiner), worked briefly on a fishing boat owned by a friend, Jack Knight, from Anna Maria Island, which is near Bradenton in Manatee County. George fished with Jack twice – when we lived in Manatee County, and later after we moved to Coral Gables. Jack built the boat in his back yard and made a reasonable living as a gill net fisherman. (This was before Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment banning inshore gill netting in 1994.)
In the winter of 1979, Jack called to tell us he was bringing his boat to the Keys and asked if George would like to sign on as a crew member. George said yes, leaving me at home in Coral Gables with our two small children.
Each time George fished he brought home his pay, and his share of the catch that the fish house wouldn’t buy. In Bradenton he appeared with more crabs than we could eat, so we shared them with our neighbors.
From the Keys, George brought back a cobia. He cleaned and scaled it on the back porch of our house, and I cooked it. This may have been the freshest saltwater fish I have ever eaten.
Creating a recipe
I had never seen a cobia and had no idea what to do with it. This was long before the Web, and at that time I did not own many cookbooks. It was too late to call someone for help, so I followed my own instincts.
I broiled the cobia in my old gas oven in a buttered pan with a little fresh key lime juice, some chopped cilantro, fresh rosemary, a bit of butter on top, and a little paprika added for color. I monitored the baking closely to make sure the fish wasn’t overcooked, and then served it with sliced tomatoes, chopped fresh basil, and brown rice.
Cobia has firm meat with a sweet, rich flavor. We enjoyed it immensely, stuffed ourselves, and still had a lot of fish left. Then we pondered what to do with the leftovers. The result was my prize-wining cobia salad.
I started with my basic tuna fish recipe and made changes. Typically I cook by sight, so the recipe that follows doesn’t include specific measurements. Use quantities that look right:
Deboned and chopped cobia
Chopped green pepper
Medium chayote, peeled and chopped. Yes, I use it raw. Chayote goes by many names, including christophene or christophine, cho-cho, mirliton or merleton, pear squash, and vegetable pear. Publix and other local supermarkets sometimes have it, and so does the Glaser Organic Farms Saturday farmers’ market in Coconut Grove.
1 cup plus (to taste) of homemade mayonnaise or Hellmann’s prepared mayonnaise
One or two chopped red radishes (optional)
Two or three stalks of chopped celery
Chopped apple (optional)
Dash of paprika for color (optional)
Mix the above ingredients throughly. Serve with sliced tomatoes and avocados, and whole wheat crackers.
Winning the contest
I invented the cobia salad in 1979 and served it occasionally thereafter when I could find a cobia to be the guest of honor.
In 1982, I entered it in the seafood cooking contest that was part of the first annual Baynanza, a celebration of Biscayne Bay’s ecological value to the South Florida community. All of the fish used in these recipes were supposed to be locally caught in Biscayne Bay and nearby waters, which fortunately for me included the Florida Keys.
All participants were invited. After the judging, everyone enjoyed a scrumptious seafood buffet.
For this event, I added some chopped cilantro for decoration. My recipe took first place in the salad category. The prize was a $50 gift certificate at Sundays on the Bay in Crandon Park, where we used it towards a lavish Sunday brunch.
Finding a cobia
Finding a cobia when you want one is a challenge. The species isn’t readily available. Occasionally one will be offered for sale on a charter boat dock, or in a fish store’s display case. Sometimes you’ll find it on a restaurant menu, but chefs typically overcook it so it comes out dry and tasteless.
If you want to try catching a cobia, keep in mind the species’ seasonal migration pattern, which is based on water temperature. Cobia spend the winter in the Keys and the Gulf of Mexico, then migrate up the east coast of Florida in spring and keep going as far north as Maryland in summer. They are solitary fish in general, but may gather at buoys, reefs, sunken ships, and other habitats where the fish on which they prey tend to congregate.
Commercial fishermen don’t fish specifically for cobia; they catch it by accident while seeking other species. Recreational fishing accounts for 90 percent of wild-caught cobia, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s FishWatch. You may even find cobia for sale that were farm-raised in ocean pens in The Bahamas, China, Central America, Puerto Rico, and Vietnam, or in a freshwater farm in Virginia.
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