Florida gator meat can replace fish or chicken in most recipes

Chef Zack Gross uses meat provided by writer Terry Tomalin to prepare gator tacos at Z Grille. Alligator meat “sure gets people talking.  . . .  After all, this is an animal that can eat you,” he says.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Chef Zack Gross uses meat provided by writer Terry Tomalin to prepare gator tacos at Z Grille. Alligator meat “sure gets people talking. . . . After all, this is an animal that can eat you,” he says.

Running around a swamp at night in an airboat may not sound like fun to everyone, but a guy has to do what a guy has to do to get fresh alligator meat.

There are more of us than you might think. Each year, the state of Florida issues about 6,000 permits to people like me who want to catch an alligator. The gator hunting season ended Monday, and it was predicted that Florida gator hunters would bag about 7,000 of the state's most famous reptile.

If you've never tried it, gator meat is lean, flavorful, not as chewy as you may have heard if it is prepared correctly, and incredibly versatile.

Like chicken, alligator has both white meat (which really does taste something like chicken) and dark meat (which is heartier, more like pork shoulder). It's high in protein, low in fat. Some cooks like to tenderize their alligator with a meat mallet before cooking — it can be seared, pan-fried, deep-fried or simmered slowly in a cast iron pot over a campfire. Ground gator meat makes tasty burgers, tacos or spaghetti sauce.

But gator meat is not cheap, especially if you are hunting the animal yourself. When you figure in the price of the hunting license, alligator permit, guide fee and travel expenses, getting your own gator costs about $50 a pound. Which makes the $10 a pound you'll pay for frozen Florida gator meat at your local seafood market (see list) look like a bargain.

Even frozen, it's more expensive than shrimp, chicken and many cuts of beef.

But gator has an undeniable — some might say priceless — mystique, making it perfect for a special occasion such as a football game, especially one involving a certain university in Gainesville.

Gator meat is a sure conversation starter. Serve it to relatives who come from up North for a visit and they can have a "tail" to tell when they go back home.

Why should you serve gator? Just ask chef Zack Gross, who recently featured gator tacos as the blue-plate lunch special at Z Grille, his St. Petersburg restaurant.

"It sure gets people talking. . . . After all, this is an animal that can eat you," said Gross, who grew up in Southern California. "Some people won't try it, but other will be like, 'Hey, why not, this is Florida.' "

I took about half of the 30 pounds of meat from my 8-foot gator and passed it out to friends, including Gross, to see what they could come up with.

With about 4 pounds of ground gator, I whipped up a chili that I served to my son's Cub Scout pack on a recent camping trip.

Gross experimented with a pound of diced gator and found it very versatile.

"I soaked it overnight in some buttermilk with a little hot sauce," he said. "That way when I fried it, it wasn't chewy at all."

Chef Tom Pritchard of Salt Rock Grill and Island Way Grill rustled up Gator and Shrimp Jambalaya. He's an experienced gator chef.

"Gator, like fish, should be put on ice right away," said Pritchard, who likes to use gator meat in soups and stews. "If you take care of the meat, and prepare it properly, it can be a great addition to many recipes."

There was a time when Florida alligators were scarce. Overhunting decimated the state's wild alligator population, sending Alligator mississippiensis to the endangered species list.

As wild alligators slowly increased, consumers turned to alligator farms for a steady supply of meat. Many of these farmed alligators came from wild eggs collected by licensed trappers. Today, the state's wild alligator population is healthy enough to sustain a tightly managed annual recreational hunting season.

Whether you bag your own or buy it at the seafood market, use the extra-lean, white meat in any recipe that calls for chicken or fish. But do not forsake the more strongly flavored dark meats, which worked just fine in my Cub Scout chili.

If you would like to try and get your own gator during next year's hunting season, contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission regarding gator hunting classes and licensing at www.myfwc.com. Although not required, the classes are recommended for anybody planning to hunt and harvest Florida's state reptile.

Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@sptimes.com.

>>moderate

Gator and Shrimp Jambalaya

2 pounds gator tail

1 pound Andouille sausage

⅔ cup vegetable oil

1 pound onions, chopped

½ pound celery, chopped

½ pound green onions, chopped

4 bay leaves

1 ½ teaspoons gumbo file

4 cups canned diced tomatoes

4 cups chicken stock

2 bunches parsley, chopped

1 pound bell peppers, any color, chopped

2 tablespoons each fresh marjoram, thyme and oregano

3 cups cooked white rice

2 pounds shrimp, peeled

Gator seasoning:

3 tablespoons garlic, chopped

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

2 teaspoons dry mustard

2 teaspoons paprika

1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce

2 tablespoons Cajun seasoning

½ cup orange juice

Cut gator into bite-sized pieces. Combine with seasoning mix. Refrigerate for 2 hours.

Cut sausage in half lengthwise. Then grill or brown the halves, cool and slice into ½-inch diagonal slices. Set aside.

In a large pan over high heat, saute the onions in oil until golden brown. Add celery, cook 3 or 4 minutes, then add green onions. Add the gator pieces and stir to evenly cook. Add the sausage pieces, bay leaves and gumbo file.

Add tomatoes, chicken stock, parsley and peppers. Stir, cooking 15 minutes more.

Add the fresh herbs and rice, and discard the bay leaves. Then, 6 minutes before serving, add the shrimp, stirring evenly to cook.

Serves 6 to 8.

Source: Tom Pritchard, Salt Rock Grill and Island Way Grill

>>moderate

Gator Tacos

2 pounds gator meat, cut in 1- to 2-inch cubes

1 quart buttermilk

1 cup Cholula hot sauce

1 head napa cabbage, sliced thin

1 small head red cabbage, sliced thin

1 red pepper, sliced thin

2 carrots, sliced thin

1 cup red wine vinegar

2 cups tempura flour

1 pound Monterey Jack cheese, shredded

2 tomatoes, diced

1 bunch cilantro, minced

12 tortillas, flour or corn

2 cups jalapeno remoulade (see recipe)

Soak gator meat in buttermilk and hot sauce overnight, then strain. Save meat, discard liquid.

Combine cabbages, red pepper and carrots together with red wine vinegar to make a slaw.

Place gator meat in a bowl with tempura flour and coat evenly. Fry in 375-degree oil for about 1 ½ minutes.

To assemble the tacos, layer slaw, cheese and tomatoes and top with fried gator meat. Drape with jalapeno remoulade and minced cilantro.

Makes 12.

Source: Zack Gross, Z Grille,

St. Petersburg

>>easy

Jalapeno Remoulade

½ cup pickled jalapenos

2 celery ribs

1 small red onion, roughly chopped

5 garlic cloves, peeled

1 small red pepper

½ bunch cilantro

½ cup whole grain mustard

1 cup mayonnaise

2 limes, juiced

Salt and pepper to taste

Place jalapenos, celery, onion, garlic, red pepper and cilantro in a food processor and pulse. Add mustard, mayonnaise and lime juice. Season with salt and pepper.

Makes 2 cups.

Source: Zack Gross, Z Grille,

St. Petersburg

. fast facts

Where to get gator

Gator meat is available at the following seafood dealers:

Pelican Point Seafood

Company

933 Dodecanese Blvd.,

Tarpon Springs

(727) 934-3134

J & K Seafood Shack

11055 Seminole Blvd.,

Largo

(727) 392-2700

Wards Seafood Market

1001 Belleair Road,

Clearwater

(727) 581-2640

Save on Seafood

1449 49th St. S, Gulfport

(727) 323-0155

Fish Tail Seafood Market

4807 S Himes Ave.,

Tampa

(813) 831-3474

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Florida gator meat can replace fish or chicken in most recipes 11/02/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 5:30am]

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