Thursday, March 25, 2010


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.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


I committed a cardinal sin. I went to the grocery store hungry. I had forgotten to take dinner out of the freezer that morning, and so thought perhaps I'd buy some fresh fish.
Walking by the meat dept., I saw a couple of packages of ribs. Hhmmm....and they were from Niman Ranch, the national brand that attempts to produce their meats on small, family farms in an humane way with no antibiotics.
The "no antibiotics" thing has become important to our family. The hubby is an ER doc, who over the last decades has seen an alarming and dramatic rise in the number of germs and nasties that do not respond to an ever-increasing array of antibiotics. There is no need to add antibiotics to animal feed, unless they are being raised in an overcrowded, inhumane and rather unsafe environment.
Go see FOOD, INC, or FRESH, both movies that will make you head straight to your farmers market for pasture-raised, grass-fed meats. (Joel Salatin, the farmer/guru from the Shenandoah that Michael Pollan wrote about in THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA and featured in both films was in Raleigh this week for a Film Feastival at Meredith College, co-presented by Slow Food Triangle. He's entertaining while he making his point.)

photo by Mollie Nicholie, Maple Creek Farm

Niman Ranch infiltrated into our huge hog-producing state back in the early '00s, partnering with about 30 small NC farmers in eastern NC. Rather than hog-factory style with huge waste ponds, these farmers raised hogs the way their ancestors did - free-roaming (within electric fences), which allowed them to snooze mud-caked in the sun or under the canopy of trees and shrubs. Niman claims to have "happy pigs." Then in 2006, when fuel prices were high, getting the hogs to the processing plants in Iowa proved to be too expensive, so contracts ended in NC. I read that some of those farmers tried to find restaurants to sell to, like The Pit in Raleigh.
You can find pork from free-ranging pigs at Cane Creek in Chatham County, or at various farms near Asheville, like Maple Creek Farm, and a few even in Wake County. You will be amazed at the difference in taste, and how much less fat there is.
Like tender ribs? Here's the first thing you need to do: Slide a knife or your finger under the thin membrane under the rack of ribs. Grab it with a paper or cloth towel and pull it up and away from the ribs. Now, these "naked" ribs will absorb more rub or sauce, and you will not have to bite through that tough membrane.

I've adapted a couple of recipes together to come up with a great tasting rub for pork. If I want them real hot and spicy, I add the chili and cayenne. Sometimes I prefer the ribs without the heat, and they're still delicious. I also like to grind the spices all together in my old coffee grinder.
This rub is enough for 3 racks (about 7 lbs)
1 teaspoon ground caraway seeds (buy it that way or grind it yourself)
2 tablespoons smoked Spanish paprika
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper
OPTION: To make the rub a bit "hotter"
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne red pepper
NOTE: Reserve 2 tablespoons of the mixture for the glaze.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
Using the best tools in your kitchen - your clean hands - rub the spice mixture onto both sides of the ribs.
Place the ribs in a large roasting pan, and cover with foil. Cook for about 1 1/2 hours. Rotate the ribs, cover tightly again, and cook for about 20 to 30 minutes longer, or until very tender.

For the GLAZE:
Reserved 2 tablespoons of the above spice rub
1/2 cup apricot or guave preserves
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Place all in a small glass bowl and microwave on high for about 20 seconds, or until preserves melt enough to mix all together.
When ribs are tender, remove from oven. Turn oven to broil. Quickly spoon or brush glaze over the meaty side of the ribs. Broil the ribs for about 10 minutes or until browned. If there is any remaining glaze, you may also do the other side of the ribs.
Slice between the bones and serve immediately.

Enjoy the ribs with a zinfandel, syrah, or Cotes du Rhone . . . a hearty red.