Thursday, March 25, 2010

STRIPED BASS

STRIPERS. STRIPED BASS. ROCKFISH (because they like to hide under rocks). It's the fish of many names. My favorite is "Mr. Pajama Pants" (because of their stripes).
Ari Weinzweig is one of the creative forces behind Zimmerman's, a grand yet earthy source of fine foods available online and at its Ann Arbor, Michigan home, as well as a bakehouse and creamery. He's the author of the Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating, a fabulous resource. After picking up a copy of THE OUTER BANKS COOKBOOK, he called to chat about Fish Muddle, the quintessential North Carolina fish stew that was traditionally made during the spring runs of rockfish, as they are more often called on their inland cruise up rivers to spawn where they themselves were spawned. Rockfish, or stripers, then return to the ocean and head up north with the Gulf Stream, only to migrate during late winter, early spring down along the Outer Banks, then turn into our sounds and head up river to repeat the spawning cycle.
Ari wound up recalling our conversation in the introduction to his recipe for NC Fish Muddle in his latest book, Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon. The connection to bacon? It's a major flavoring in the traditional recipe, and, pigs were slaughtered during colder weather, meaning the bacon was cured just in time to add it to a late spring muddle that was stewed right at the rivers' edge at the fish camps that dotted the shores.
The hubby and I made a road trip two weeks ago to Weldon, a small mill town on the Roanoke River, where at times the small fishing boats are so thick that you can hop from stern to prow all the way across the river. The river was up so high that the rocks that almost dam up the river could not be seen. You can't catch much in muddy water, and the stripers and the shad had yet to arrive, according to the few fishermen lining the banks. After casting with no results for about an hour, we went home empty-handed.
But a quick run to the beach this past weekend netted us a magnificent striper at B & J Seafood on HWY 70 at New Bern. While cleaning him, Ray told us that one of their fishermen had caught this 4-pounder that morning.
Striped bass is a very mild fish, and like most bass, its firm white flesh could use a little more flavor. So I stuffed the cavity with fresh thyme and thinly sliced onions and lemons, with a generous pinch of sea salt and freshly ground pepper. I forgot to slash the flesh on each side, down to the bone, about an inch apart. Some folks also place half a lemon slice in each slash. On the Outer Banks, the fish would then be wrapped with slices of bacon, which I did not have on hand.
So instead I placed more onions, and some bell peppers and lemon slices around the fish, then massaged it with olive oil on both sides, allowing a bit of oil to collect under the fish to keep it from sticking. I sprinkled it with more sea salt and freshly ground pepper.
Notice I placed the fish on heavy duty aluminum foil, which aided clean up, but also, I topped it with another piece of foil and folded the edges together to form a tight seal that would help steam the fish.
Into a preheated 400 degree oven it went, for about 45 minutes.
Perfecto! When the foil top was opened, the flavored steam that escaped was downright sinful. The skin slid off easily. And it was easy, using a spatula and a large fork, to cut pieces of the fish from the top half, down to the backbone, and slide them onto plates. After discarding the backbone, the rest of the fish lifted readily off the other skin. The onions and peppers were soft and succulent, giving the fish a lovely depth of flavor and mouthfeel.
We enjoyed this striper with flavored jasmine rice and a sauvignon blanc.
Now that's a significant "bone to pick." Think we liked it?
There's a tale I like to tell about walking down the beach at Nags Head one late Feb afternoon and seeing a bevy of fishermen casting over and over, dragging up huge stripers on the beach. After watching for a while, I went to look at a huge striper one fellow was putting into his ice chest, which was already full of the big boys.
"This must be pretty exciting," I said to him.
"Ma'am, this is THE most exciting thing I've ever done in my life," he said, with such a great big grin on his face.
"Better than sex?"
"Ma'am, that only last a minute, and this has been going on for hours!" he said emphatically.

3 comments:

Woodduck said...

Rockfish don't hide under rocks and Weldon isn't a mill town...that's upstream at Roanoke Rapids. Get you some bacon, great day in the morning!
We do like your cookbook, but, when in Rome; you know the drill.

Carolina Foodie said...

Thanks, I stand corrected. I assumed from the buildings I saw there, and the railroad and former canal, that something was being manufactured there at some time. And I'll have to tell Ari and my fisherman hubby that they're wrong about the rocks and rockfish, so maybe we'll catch more in the future.
What's your favorite way to "fix" this fish? I love it.

maryland fishing charters said...

Well, rockfish do tend to have an affinity for structure, as they often frequent pylons, reefs, and lighthouses where we fish, although not 100% sure that is why they are called rockfish.

Very nice article. When it comes to seafood, nothing beats rockfish! Absolutely delicious!