©2015 Henry McDaniel Photography

By any other name...
First we need to talk about mahi or mahi-mahi as it is frequently referred to. Though sometimes called "dolphin" (a misnomer if ever there was one), mahi is a fish and dolphin is a mammal. One has nothing at all to do with the other. (They don't even keep in touch.) So the first thing to remember when you see dolphin (or mahi) on a menu is that you're not being offered grilled Son of Flipper.

The second thing you should know about delicately flavored mahi is that it can be one delicious fish dish - especially the way it's being prepared for this article. We're pairing a six once mahi filet with a dozen lightly sautéed. The filet is basted with herb butter and a few special seasonings. After grilling (either on the grill or pan grilled), the fillet is nestled atop freshly sautéed baby-leaf spinach (just slightly wilted), to which we add about a dozen or so of pan-steamed mussels and top with a crabmeat-béchamel sauce that adds some weight to the light flavor of the mahi (and also gives your mussels a little something to swim in at the end of the meal). Grab some French or Italian bread because you'll want to do a bit of sauce dipping.

Mahi is kind of like chicken in that it's mild-flavored and blends well with a multitude of sauces and flavors. It's also a firm, light fish, almost steak-like. It's a balanced texture, firm like swordfish, but it can have that little bit of flakiness to it, too, like grouper. When buying mahi you want to look for a nice opaque color, almost translucent. It should have a kind of sheen to it. And the bloodline running down the back should be a nice, bright red.

You can usually get the mahi filets pre-cut in five to eight ounce servings however, if it's a large group you're entertaining, it's more economical to purchase the entire filet and trim it yourself. Typically, the fish will be handed to you wrapped in packaging paper and taped closed. To store it before cooking, just pop the package as is into the fridge and place a zip-lock bag with ice on top of it so it stays as cold as possible.

Photo source: Florida Sportsman
Mahi-mahi... the real chicken of the sea.
The common English name of dolphin causes much confusion. Additionally, two species of dolphinfish exist, the common dolphinfish (Coryphaena hippurus) and the pompano dolphin (Coryphaena equiselis). Both these species are commonly marketed by their Pacific name, mahi-mahi.

Mahi-mahi can live up to 5 years, although they seldom exceed four. Catches average 7 to 13 kilograms (15 to 29 lb). They seldom exceed 15 kilograms (33 lb), and mahi-mahi over 18 kilograms (40 lb) are exceptional.

Mahi-mahi have compressed bodies and a single long-based dorsal fin extending from the head almost to the tail. Their caudal fins and anal fins are sharply concave. They are distinguished by dazzling colors: golden on the sides, and bright blues and greens on the sides and back. Mature males have prominent foreheads protruding well above the body proper. Females have a rounded head. Females are also usually smaller than males.

The pectoral fins of the mahi-mahi are iridescent blue. The flank is broad and golden. 3 black diagonal stripes appear on each side of the fish as it swiftly darts after prey.

Out of the water, the fish often change color (giving rise to their Spanish name, dorado, "golden"), going though several hues before finally fading to a muted yellow-grey upon death.

Mahi-mahi are among the fastest-growing fish. They spawn in warm ocean currents throughout much of the year, and their young are commonly found in seaweed. Mahi-mahi are carnivorous, feeding on flying fish, crabs, squid, mackerel, and other forage fish. They have also been known to eat zooplankton and crustaceans.

Males and females are sexually mature in their first year, usually by 4-5 months old. Spawning can occur at body lengths of 20 cm. Females may spawn two to three times per year, and produce between 80,000 and 1,000,000 eggs per event.

In waters averaging 28 %C / 83 %F, mahi-mahi larvae are found year-round, with greater numbers detected in spring and fall. In one study, seventy percent of the youngest larvae collected in the northern Gulf of Mexico were found at a depth greater than 180 meters. Spawning occurs normally in captivity, with 100,000 eggs per event. Problems maintaining salinity, food of adequate nutritional value and proper size, and dissolved oxygen are responsible for larval mortality rates of 20-40%. Mahi-mahi fish are mostly found in the surface water. Juveniles feed on shrimp, fish and crabs found in rafts of Sargassum weeds. Their flesh is soft and oily, similar to sardines. The body is slightly slender and long, making them fast swimmers; they can swim as fast as 50 knots (92.6 km/h, 57.5 mph).

The fish is called mahi-mahi in the Hawaiian language, and "mahi mahi" is commonly used elsewhere.

In the Pacific and along the English speaking coast of South Africa they are also commonly called by the Spanish name, Dorado. In the Mediterranean island of Malta, this fish is referred to as the Lampuka.

Linnaeus named the genus, derived from the Greek word, koryphe, meaning top or apex, in 1758. Synonyms for the species include Coryphaena argyrurus, Coryphaena chrysurus and Coryphaena dolfyn.

We're using Canadian Cove Blue mussels from Prince Edward Island near Nova Scotia, where they're grown on ropes in water that's as cold and pristine as nature makes it. So what you get, in our opinion at least, is a really succulent mussel with a lot of meat to it and a very clean, bright flavor.

Two things you never do with mussels is put them in salted water or in plastic. It can kill them. Remember, they're living creatures that need air around them. What I do is put them in a colander on top of a plate and place a really damp towel over them. Then I place that set-up in the refrigerator. To prepare the mussels for cooking, I pour the mussels into a container that retains water and then run cold water into the container until the water runs clear. When you do that, the mussel starts thinking, Okay, I've got water around me again, and it starts purging itself of any sand or

The reason I chose the cultivated Blue mussels (which are actually black, by the way) is because they're consistent. First and foremost, the cold clear waters off Nova Scotia, where these mussels come from, is a controlled environment. You don't have a red tide or an algae bloom because of the low water temperature. It's the same kind of environment that Maine lobsters are raised in, and I think these cultivated mussels have the same sweet succulence.

Prep on the dish is about twenty to thirty minutes of easy work... and a good excuse to do it in front of guests while quaffing a great chardonnay. Cook time (when coordinated) is another ten minutes and you're ready to serve - immediately.

Blue mussels are widely distributed in European waters, extending from the White Sea, Russia as far as south as the Atlantic coast of Southern France. Mytilus edulis has a wide distributional pattern, mainly due to its abilities to withstand wide fluctuations in salinity, desiccation, temperature, and oxygen tension. Therefore, this species occupies a broad variety of microhabitats, expanding its zonational range from the high intertidal to subtidal regions and its salinity range from estuarine areas to fully oceanic seawaters. Highly tolerant of a wide range of environmental conditions, the blue mussel is euryhaline and occurs in marine as well as in brackishwaters (Baltic) down to 4%, although it does not thrive in salinities of less than 15% and its growth rate is reduced below 18%. Blue mussels are also eurythermal, even standing freezing conditions for several months.

The species is well acclimated for a 5-20 °C temperature range, with an upper sustained thermal tolerance limit of about 29 °C for adults. Its climatic regime varies from mild, subtropical locations to frequently frozen habitats. M. edulis typically occurs in intertidal habitats, although this distribution appears mostly controlled by biological factors (predation, food competition) rather than by its capacity to survive subtidally, as demonstrated by offshore mussel culture using longlines. When predators are lacking, M. edulis subtidal aggregations can reach a 1.2 m thickness and individuals attain large sizes in a relatively short period of time.

Although blue mussels can live up to 18-24 years, most cultured mussels are produced in less than 2 years. In the wild, M. edulis settles in patches of open spaces, quickly building a dense population referred to as 'mussel beds'. Although showing a seasonal pattern, the reproductive cycle of M. edulis can exhibit considerable temporal and spatial variation. Gonads are usually ripe by early spring in European waters; mussels commonly show a significant loss of condition following spawning. Rapid gametogenesis leads to fully ripe gonads again in summer. Although directly driven by food availability and temperature, reproductive cycles in M. edulis may vary latitudinally, both in terms of onset and duration. High fecundity and a mobile free living larval phase are two characteristics that have contributed to the development of mussel culture; in fact, the natural abundance of M. edulis larvae has been the key for such development.

One of the key issues for mussel culture is seed supply. Hatchery-produced seeds were initially used during the 1970s in China to supplement wild set spat; but now there is a reliable and abundant supply there, sufficient to sustain present production. Shellfish hatcheries enable the industry to produce seed consistently and at an acceptable cost, as well as to work with polyploids, hybrids, and selected strains. Although the use of hatchery spat production is not yet commonplace, this technology may also provide an option for addressing the irregular spat settlement that has affected natural populations over the last 10 years in European waters.

Hatchery production is based upon conditioning adult mussels by using algal food and temperature control. The natural maturation cycle is actually mimicked at the hatchery. Mature mussels are cleaned up and hung as a group in larval tanks. M. edulis spawning is induced by thermal shock or by stripping. Once spawning is completed, 24 hours are required for the larvae to reach the straight hinge stage. Larvae are fed ad libitum and allowed to grow until they are ready to set onto ropes (13-15 days). Deployed in setting tanks, mussels are transferred at a 1 mm size to a nursery, where they will remain until they reach 6-10 mm; then the spat is moved outdoors into grow-out systems.

Let's prep!
Unwrap the fish. If you feel the need to rinse the filet first, do so with lightly salted, bottled water. Chlorinated tap water will react to the outer flesh immediately and create a thin mushy-textured layer.

A sharp knife is the key to happiness and by sharp I mean scalpel sharp - no fooling around. Work quickly because you don't want the fish warming up. Heat before cooking is the enemy and changes both texture and flavor.

To debone the mahi: Run knife along right side of boneline, slashing down at a 25° angle; repeat along left side so slashes form a "V". If done right, the bones come out in a single string. (See photo).

Cut the bloodline meat away from the filet halves and discard.

Take each long piece and cut cross-wise into appropriately sized, single serving filets.

Sprinkle each filet with a few pinches of the seasoning (See recipe for details), lightly drape filets in plastic wrap and return to refrigerator until cooking.
Photos clockwise from top left: Pointing out the bone, blood meat and cut line, removing the blood meat, properly trimmed filets, seasoning, the high white / paque finish to a fresh mahi filiet.
Remove the mussels from their original bag, de-beard them (taking away any vegetative growth from around the shell) and rinse initially using a colander and cold running water. Place the pre-rinsed mussels in a large bowl and continuously run a moderate stream of cold water in the bowl (allowing to overflow) until the water runs clear - about five minutes. Too long and the mussels can die from overexposure to chlorinated water.

Drain water from bowl and cover with a wet towel. Set mussels aside in a cool place until cook time.
Photos clockwise from top left: Fresh Canadian mussels, de-bearding the mussel, flash the mahi before grilling if you like, finishing the mussel steam, forked crab meat, heating the crab, adding the sauce
Empty the crab meat into a large bowl and fork lightly while looking for any possible shell remnants. Don't cheap out on the crab cost. The more expensive brands (and well worth the price) have a better grade of meat and rarely a shell or filament can be found.

Prep up the béchamel doing the following:

Warm the butter and cream to room temp. It's always a good thing to conduct a fine sift on the flour even if it's pre-sifted. Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Once melted, using a whisk, stir in the flour until smooth. Continue stirring as the flour cooks to a light, golden, sandy color, about 7 minutes.Increase heat to medium-high and slowly whisk in cream until thickened by the roux. Bring to a gentle simmer, then reduce heat to medium-low and continue simmering until the flour has softened and not longer tastes gritty, 10 to 20 minutes, then season with salt and nutmeg.

Preheat a sauté pan to medium-high heat. Add canola oil, add mussels and cover pan; cook for approximately 2-3 minutes. Remove the mussels from the pan. Add spinach and flash sauté with Chardonnay, just enough to wilt the spinach. Lightly season with salt and pepper.

Place the mahi on the grill and baste with herb butter and seasoning (e.g., Montreal Seasoning). Grilling time will be approximately 8-12 minutes, depending on thickness of the fish.

Remove the spinach from the pan and set in the center of the plate.

Add the crabmeat and sauté in the pan for 1 minute. Add the cream sauce to the crabmeat and heat through.
Photos left: Sauté spinach until just wilted, I prefer slightly under-grilled fish, arrange the spinch in center of plate, lay in the fish, mussels and top with sauce.
While the crabmeat and cream sauce is heating, place the fish atop the spinach.

Arrange the mussels on either side of the fish, pointing them into the dish.

Top the fish and spinach with the crabmeat and cream sauce, and serve.

Let's eat!
Domaine des Grandes Perrieres Sancerre
Sancerre, Loire, France- This elegant Sauvignon Blanc is filled with bright citrus and mineral notes that accent the hints of honeysuckle on the palate. The crisp acidity and ripe lemon make this a classic pairing for shellfish and rich seafood dishes.

Thanks to Dan Filice - Wine Ambassador at Trader Joe's for turning me on to the Sancerre. Check your local store for availability.

Shopping list & sources (each product is linked to the source)
Live Mussels -
Fresh Mahi -
Fresh lump crab meat -
Organic baby spinach -
Imported Italian olive oil -
Organic cream -
Sancerre -
Organic flour -
Organic / non-GMO butter -
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