Dean Neff culinary career to his childhood on the coast. Growing up in Savannah, he says, “I was very in touch with the ocean,” he says. “We were always hanging out at the ocean or fishing in boats, and I wanted to cook everything we caught.”
Neff found himself landlocked when he started his career as a chef, unable to tap into cooking that centered around the coast. However, when he landed in Wilmington, North Carolina, he remembered the nostalgia of cooking with fish and seafood again. He opened his own restaurant Seabird in a former bank building. Inside this space, which gives a nod to old school New England oyster bars, Neff’s cooking highlights the breadth and versatility of North Carolina’s seafood as well as the people producing it.
When it comes to this dish, Neff admits to packing it up into a quart container and sipping it on the drive home from work. Not only does he love the flavors, but the clams, wild mussels, and speckled sea trout were ingredients that he was exploring as a child in Savannah.
A major component of his cooking, especially for this dish, is building a relationship with their suppliers to make it unique and special. The clams and mussels come from a wild forager. Shrimp and speckled sea trout make their way over from the Southport area. As the time changes, so do the ingredients. Neff ensures they adapt based on fresh, seasonal seafood, with a focus on being as sustainable as possible.
For Neff, his favorite part is the broth of this seafood cioppino. He attributes his admiration for the flavors to all the work that goes into it. A variety of aromatic vegetables such as leak, fennel, and celery get steeped into the base. Additionally, pungent flavors such as bay leaves, peppercorns, and mushroom stems cook down. A special addition is that they purée roasted red peppers into the broth to enrich and add flavor to the base. Not to mention, organic dried seaweed infuses the broth with a briny, unforgettable flavor. “You just wanna drink it,” Neff said.
At Seabird, they top off the dish with a benne seed-encrusted seaweed bread for dipping. This bread is griddled, buttered, and smothered with a tangy smoked oyster rouille. If you can’t get to Wilmington, thick slices of sourdough make an appropriate substitute.
1 large leek, diced
1 large onion, diced
1 large carrot, shredded finely with a microplane
3 celery stalks, diced
1 (6×6-inch) piece of kombu (add any good seaweed varieties you choose here except nori)
3 fresh thyme sprigs
2 fresh oregano sprigs
Juice of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 orange
2 cups white wine
2 cups tomato juice
1½ quarts low-sodium vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
4 roma tomatoes
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
3 roasted, peeled, and seeded red peppers, sweet red, or even canned piquillo
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 yellow onions, minced
12 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
8 red peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded, and finely minced
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper
1 teaspoon urfa pepper
4 roma tomatoes, minced
2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
3 tablespoons minced oregano
1 tablespoon minced thyme
3 tablespoons minced parsley
2 tablespoons cold butter
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
Splash of lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 quart cherry tomatoes, halved
2 garlic cloves of garlic, thinly shaved
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
½ teaspoon smoked sweet paprika
2 egg yolks
2 roasted, seeded, and peeled red peppers
2 teaspoons sweet smoked paprika
2 tablespoon actual lemon juice
1 tablespoon champagne vinegar
2 cloves of garlic
2 teaspoons worcestershire
1 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon saffron
1 cup olive oil
8-10 smoked oysters (drained-canned or home-smoked)
4 slices crusty sourdough, sliced ¼ inch thick, brushed with olive oil, seared in dry cast iron pan until charred
4 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil, divided
1 fennel bulb, cut into 1/10s
12 smoky andouille sausages, sliced into ¼-inch slices (optional)
12-16 gold or fingering potatoes, blanched and diced into 1-inch cubes
8-12 littleneck clams or PEI Mussels
1 cup sofrito (recipe follows)
4 (4-ounce) filets of black grouper or other favorite fish, seasoned with salt and pepper
8 large dry-packed scallops, seasoned with salt and pepper
1 tablespoon butter
8 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
Cioppino broth (recipe follows)
12 lemons, thinly sliced and seeds removed
Cherry Tomato Salad (recipe follows)
Smoked Oyster Rouille (recipe follows)
For the broth
For the sofrito
Cherry Tomato Salad
Smoked Oyster Rouille
For the cioppino
- Make the broth: In a large stockpot over medium-low heat, add all ingredients except roasted peppers. Bring to a gentle simmer and let cook over low heat for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
- Let cool slightly, then carefully strain all solids out of the broth. With an upright or immersion blender, purée peppers into broth until fully incorporated. Set aside.
- Make the sofrito: In a large pot over medium heat, add olive oil and sweat onion and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, until lightly toasted (about 10 minutes). Add minced peppers, smoked paprika, Aleppo, and urfa and toast while stirring for an additional 3-4 minutes.
- Add minced tomatoes and season lightly with salt to break them down. Once tomatoes have been cooked down to a paste, add stock and cook over low heat to reduce and concentrate the flavors.
- Once residual liquid has cooked out, remove from heat and incorporate minced herbs and butter into mixture, stirring well until butter melts completely. Season lightly with salt to taste. Set aside.
- Make the cherry tomato salad: In a small bowl, whisk to combine vinegar and lemon juice. Add oil and whisk vigorously until fully emulsified.
- In a separate bowl, combine tomatoes with garlic, parsley, and paprika. Drizzle oil-vinegar mixture over tomatoes and toss lightly to combine. Set aside.
- In a food processor, add egg yolks, red peppers, lemon juice, vinegar, garlic, worcestershire, cayenne, and saffron. Puree until smooth, then slowly drizzle olive oil into food processor to emulsify. Add oysters to finish until smooth. Season with sea salt and set aside.
- To serve: Brush sourdough with olive oil and sear in a dry cast-iron pan until charred. Spread rouille over bread and serve.
- Make the cioppino: In a 5-quart pot dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid, add 2 tablespoons oil and heat over high heat. Add fennel, sausage, and potatoes and cook until browned on all sides, lowering heat as needed to avoid burning oil.
- Once vegetables and sausage are brown, add ½ cup sofrito, clams, and 2¼ cups broth. Cover and let cook until clams open completely. Remove from heat and set aside.
- In a cast-iron skillet, add 1 tablespoon oil and bring to medium-high heat. Once hot, add seasoned grouper filets and cook, undisturbed, until golden brown, about 1 minute. Transfer, seared side up, to a sheet tray and finish cooking in an oven at 400 degrees until cooked through.
- Add 1 tablespoon oil, if needed, to skillet, and add scallops, being careful not to overcrowd the pan. Let cook undisturbed until golden-brown. Flip and sear other side until just lightly browned. Transfer scallops from pan onto their own sheet tray.
- In the dutch oven with the clams, turn up heat to a gentle simmer. Add shrimp, butter, and remaining sofrito and cook, covered, until shrimp are fully cooked, about 1-2 minutes. Turn off heat.
- Return broth to heat to warm. As it cooks, warm scallops in an oven at 300 degrees.
- To serve: In 4 ceramic bowls, evenly distribute the seafood. Pour broth over ingredients, and top each bowl with tomato salad and charred bread slathered with smoked oyster rouille.
Video by: Jonathan Boncek
Edits by: Jack McAlister
Production by: Maggie Ward
Location: Charleston Wine + Food