The Wild South

Old Bay Compound Butter Boosts This Fall Fish Lunch

A simple method for a quick and tasty fish and grits lunch (or breakfast, or dinner)

Photo: T. Edward Nickens

Fishing is not always simple, especially when you throw a boat into the mix. But this fish and grits recipe is remarkably streamlined—and tasty. It involves but a few kitchen basics: a cast-iron skillet, a compound butter amped up with Old Bay that you can whip up beforehand, and grits. (You do keep grits on hand, yes?) It’s quick enough that you can knock it out on a slack tide and be back on the water when the fish start biting again. And it has a triple personality, working equally well for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

photo: T. Edward Nickens
The author’s son with a Spanish mackerel.
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You’ll need a couple of skinless fish fillets. My go-tos for this recipe have been freshly caught Spanish mackerel or bluefish. Redfish are perfect, too. As for the grits, while I prefer stone ground grits, I’ll be honest: I don’t shy away from five-minute grits when I’m fixing a quick fish lunch. And I don’t use milk or chicken broth for cooking grits in this preparation. The butter and rendered fat from the fish provide plenty of rich gravy, and with the cheese in the grits, you might not want too much richness.

photo: T. Edward Nickens
Old Bay fish and grits.

The compound butter is a snap and highly customizable to both taste and convenience. The Old Bay might seem like an easy choice for a seafood dish, but its combination of red pepper and salt pump up the goodness of grits, too. Mix-ins not included in this recipe could include dried herbs, fresh parsley or chives, minced dried onions, hot sauce, and horseradish. Troll through the refrigerator. That’s my typical approach. If you have a fishing trip coming up, make the compound butter a few days ahead. You might be surprised at how often you use it.

Follow T. Edward Nickens on Instagram @enickens and find more Wild South columns here.


  • For the compound butter

    • 1 stick unsalted butter

    • 1 tsp. minced garlic

    • 1 tbsp. Old Bay

    • Zest of 1 lemon

  • For the fish and grits

    • Grits of your choice

    • Smoked white cheddar

    • 2 skinless fish fillets, with the bloodlines removed


  1. Make the compound butter: Let butter come to room temperature. Use a fork to chop roughly. Add the minced garlic, Old Bay, and lemon zest, and mix well. Form as a small log on a sheet of plastic wrap, and wrap tightly. Let harden in refrigerator.

  2. Make the fish and grits: Prepare 2 cups grits according to instructions. Add ¼ cup grated smoked white cheddar cheese and stir well.

  3. Heat 2 tablespoons of the compound butter over medium heat in a cast-iron skillet. Add fish fillets. Cook the fish slightly more slowly than usual, to render as much fat out of the fish as possible. Once the fillets are browned, flip the fish and crank up the heat a bit for a crisper crust. Spoon the melted butter and browned fish bits over the fillets a time or two. You’ll need extra buttery fish gravy to pour over the grits, so add another spoonful or two of compound butter to the pan if you need more.

  4. When the fish is flaky and well browned, it’s time to plate. Add grits to the plate, with the fish on the side. Use a spatula to scrape the browned fond from the skillet and mix with the melted butter. The more browned and crunchy bits you get, the better. Spoon over the grits, and serve.