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Fish recipes from the Chesapeake

Catching a fish from the Chesapeake leads to a seafood dinner beyond the reach of most mortals. The fish has come directly from your own hand. It is fresher than anything available to those not thus connected to the water. Freshness is really the defining quality, the gold standard, of seafood cuisine: same-day catch to table. Buying fish from even the best seafood markets will net a catch that is at its freshest three days old: a day from catch to the dock; another day from wholesaler to retailer, then a day (at the least) to the purchaser and to home. As to later than three days, keep in mind the old Benjamin Franklin dictum: “After three days, a fish and a house guest begin to smell.” Rockfish, the most treasured fish of the Bay, is not at all difficult to prepare. It is a dense, white-fleshed creature that responds exceptionally to herbs and spices, assuming they are not overdone. The distinctly fine flavor of striped bass can be easily overwhelmed, which is why my favorite recipe is simplicity itself. Starting with a boneless, skinless fillet, dry it with paper towels, slather with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and place it in a hot cast-iron skillet until it is well browned on one side. Then turn the fillet over and slide the skillet into a 350-degree preheated oven for 15 minutes. Test with a fork to be sure it’s done all the way through and serve. A simple lemon butter sauce with fresh-chopped dill or fennel is enough to lend rockfish all the sophistication that a fine palate could demand. My favorite accompaniments are Eastern Shore Silver Queen sweet corn and some thickly sliced fresh tomato from the same locale, dressed with olive oil, salt, ground pepper and fresh basil. A bottle of chilled champagne would not be gilding the lily. White perch is another seafood treasure from the Bay. Seldom encountered in area markets, white perch caught commercially in Maryland are mostly sent out of state. Apparently the Maryland markets are skewed toward rockfish. However, if you are even a modest angler you can secure yourself some of the finest frying fish in existence. The perch are small; a 10-incher is a big one. However, they are found in great numbers in the Bay and tributaries and, allowing for three fish per person, the average angler usually can secure a fine dinner in no time at all. Carefully fillet and skin the fish, cutting each fillet into two equal-sized portions. Blot the fish pieces dry with paper towels and dip in a mixture of two beaten eggs, two tablespoons flour, salt, pepper and a bit of beer (enough to create a syrupy mixture). Then roll the coated pieces in a shallow dish heaped with Japanese panko crumbs. Accumulate the prepared fish pieces on a large plate. Then heat a heavy skillet — again I prefer cast-iron — with about an inch of peanut oil (corn oil works almost as well) to about 350 to 400 degrees. With tongs settle the pieces of fish in the hot oil, turning them when they are golden brown. Hold the completed fish in a warm oven while you make a simple tartar sauce from chopped cornichons (about eight or nine), olive oil mayo (I like Hellman’s) and the juice of one-quarter lemon. You can also provide some dipping sauces. Texas Pete Buffalo Wing Sauce is a good one if you like it spicy, lemony vinaigrette if you’re of a gentler palate. I prefer an India pale ale to accompany the meal, but ice tea or a good, chilled white wine will go well. Provide plenty of napkins as this feast invites hands-on dining.

Can the Bay Gardener solve it?

About 30 years ago, I began to build up my garden with compost and leaves. Every few years, I would gather and put down about three feet of leaves to rot and be tilled into the 50-by-50-foot garden space. The garden now has a beautiful loamy soil. I have been planting with wonderful results for about 20 years.
    About six years ago, I collected the leaves and put them down but did not plant for two years. I gather the bags of leaves, mostly oak, from neighboring houses. Several mulched bags of grass were in the mix this time.
    When I next planted my garden in a six-by-30-foot area, all the plants, tomatoes and cucumbers withered and died over a 12-hour period. The plants had been in the ground for about three weeks and had begun to produce small vegetables.
    I immediately removed them. The University of Maryland Extension Service recommended I plant buckwheat and oats. This I did for two years in a row. It grew beautifully, and so did the weeds.
    This year I have once again planted the garden. In the very same area, all the vegetables withered and died over 12 hours.
    The garden has been tilled many, many times. This is the only area that has the problem. It has not spread to another section of the garden.
    Could I have gotten some chemical like Roundup in the collected bags? If that is the case, why has it not moved with all the tilling?
    I might add that the dead plants have perfectly healthy root systems, and there are no tunnels or holes from moles or voles.
    I am totally at a loss as to what is happening and as to what I can do to fix the problem. Any advice you can give would be greatly appreciated.
–Pat Fessler, Crownsville

The Bay Gardener’s Solution


    The problem is not Roundup. Glyphosate, as the Monsanto weed-killer is called, deteriorates into phosphorus once it enters the soil. It does not have weed control properties when it becomes a soil component.
    I suspect that the soil is infested with fusarium, which is a fungus, or possibly sodium or soluble salts. I suggest that you have the soil tested by A&L Eastern Agricultural Laboratories. Request the S3 test to include soluble salts and sodium. Submit one sample of soil from the affected area and a second soil sample from the surrounding area. Do not indicate crop or request recommendations. Each soil sample should include at least five core samples from each area. Air-dry the samples overnight before mailing them for fast results. Print submission form and instructions from the web page: www.al-labs-eastern.com.
    Have the lab send me the results at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. We’ll get to the bottom of this.

White perch are ready to bite

White perch are ready to bite

The day had turned ideal, overcast with virtually no wind and a full flood tide. I was busy tying on a bright-colored, one-sixth-ounce spinner bait and, while I couldn’t see my buddy Moe in the bow, I could hear him grunt, “Another one … bigger than the last.” I hurried to pull my knot tight. Of course in my haste I botched the operation and had to cut the lure off and start over.
    After getting the knot right, I was soon tight to a spunky white perch, the most delicious fish in the Chesapeake. The day had instantly become much brighter in spite of that thick cloud cover and our earlier experience.
    The trip we had planned, chumming for rockfish, had become impossibly difficult despite a good start. We had a nice fish in the box in the first 15 minutes; then the bite had died. For a long while we were patient. Then the tide went weird.
    Three hours after the turn was scheduled, the current continued to come in at a dead crawl. Our anchored skiff wandered. Meager, gusting winds sent us first one way, then another. The lines tangled and our baits went unmolested. We tried to persevere, but the awful conditions persisted.
    “Welcome to the Chesapeake Bay, home of the impossible tides,” I said as we separated the intertwined lines of a couple of outfits. Most other boats had gone.
    “You suppose they know something we don’t?” I asked.
    “You mean, like this is a total waste of time?” Moe answered.
    He suggested heading for a more southern shore, a place where we had in previous seasons enjoyed some good fishing for white perch.
    “I’m not sure they are in the shallows there yet,” I said. “The frigid winter made everything so late this year.”
    “So how could that be worse than this?” he asked, as we pulled our Danforth and put our chumming gear away.
    The couple of perch rods we had packed now looked like our salvation.
    After a bit of a run we moved, as quietly as we could go, within casting distance of a rocky, tree-shrouded shoreline studded with stone jetties. I spiked my Power Pole shallow-water anchor into the bottom, and our skiff skidded to a stop. My partner had his rod already rigged so he was quick into action. His first cast answered the big question: The perch are here.
    Just about all white perch feel big for the first few seconds after hooking up, but after that it’s only the larger, thicker, black-backed perch that can keep a sustained bend in a light rod and make the battle a test of wills. With the perch’s delicate mouth structure, an educated hand becomes very helpful in getting a big one into the boat.
    There were lots of throwbacks but among them enough 10-inchers along the shoreline to accumulate a decent-sized fish fry.
    We ate well the next afternoon.

The sun stands still for just a day before again heading south

In the early morning Saturday, at 6:51am EDT, the sun reaches its northernmost point in the sky for the year, with its center hovering directly above the Tropic of Cancer somewhere in Africa. On solstice, the sun appears to pause in place, holding steady for several days directly overhead at high noon — solstice in fact means sun standing still. You can see proof of the sun standing still in this week’s times of sunrise and sunset, listed below, which barely change.
    This solstice marks the Northern Hemisphere’s longest day of the year, with 14 hours 54 minutes of sunlight here along Chesapeake Bay. And while there is no universal body that dictates the start of the seasons, this celestial phenomenon is universally seen as the start of summer for the Northern Hemisphere and the start of winter for those below the equator.
    The earth spins at a 231⁄2-degree tilt, causing the north side of the planet to more directly face the sun for half the year and the south side to more directly face the sun the other half of the year. At the time of the June solstice, the North Pole points almost directly at the sun, while December’s solstice has the South Pole pointing sunward. Right now, we’re enjoying that sunward tilt, and all those extra hours of daylight add up to the season’s much warmer temperatures.
    While it is only the start of summer and the days will continue to grow warmer for some time to come, it is also the beginning of summer’s end. The very next day after solstice, the sun begins its southward march, albeit ever so slightly at first, and the length of daylight wanes.
    For millenia, cultures have tracked the sun’s path across the sky, measuring the length of daylight and the location of the sunrise and sunset throughout the year. The ancient Celts built Stonehenge, built at least 5,000 years ago in alignment with the solstices and sunrise. Around the same time, the Egyptians were building their own monuments to the sun and the passing seasons. From a vantage atop the Great Sphinx on the day of June’s solstice, the sun set directly between the oldest of the Great Pyramids.
    The sun may be the star this week, but the waning crescent moon makes good showings with Venus low in the east before dawn Monday and Tuesday, when only two degrees separate the two. Early Wednesday the moon is just above of the bright star Aldebaran in Taurus.

Rest and replenish your bed

If you were wise enough some years back to plant asparagus, you’ve been rewarded with a spring feast. Now it’s time to give your asparagus bed a rest to ensure future harvests.
    An asparagus bed planted in full sun in well-prepared and well-drained soil can remain productive for 20 years or more — if you treat it well.
    If you want your bed to serve you with an abundance of spears each spring, you must avoid over harvesting. Stop gathering spears by mid-June — now — to allow mature foliage to develop. An abundance of foliage is necessary to replenish the energy in the roots and crowns for next year’s crop.
    Extending the harvesting season until July will result in a limited crop next season because insufficient time was allowed for recovery. On the other hand, if you limiting the harvest to just a few weeks in the spring, the bed will expand too quickly, crowding the stems. This problem is corrected by extending the harvest season the following year.
    Weeds can be a severe problem in asparagus beds. Keeping up with weeds begins in the spring before the spears appear. Cultivate the beds lightly by using a Nebraska flat blade or a sharp hoe or by shallow tilling. I like to cultivate my asparagus bed the first week in April. We don’t start cutting asparagus spears until mid-April.
    Once the stalks have developed and the plants are in full foliage, an onion hoe is ideal for removing weeds. Soon after I make my final harvest in early June, I appliy Preen at the recommended rate. Preen is cleared for use on vegetable crops.
    Fertilize or mulch with compost soon after the harvest season. I apply calcium nitrate at the rate of one pound per 100 square feet and then apply a one-inch layer of compost. I also place a trickle irrigation line down the middle of each bed before applying the mulch. The trickle irrigation lines are on a feeder line of their own.
    In the fall, do not cut off the stems until the foliage has turned completely yellow. Patience allows all of the nitrogen in the stems to drain down to the crown, where it is readily available for next year’s crop.
    As asparagus beds age, they become more attractive to asparagus beetles. Thus far I have never had a severe infestation.
    However, in August you are likely to see caterpillars of different colors feasting on the foliage. These are mostly butterfly caterpillars that can most easily be picked by hand each day unless you are interested in promoting butterflies.


The Mystery of Bulb Storage, Solved

Q    I read your May 22 column (www.bayweekly.com/node/22306) on moving daffodil bulbs. It’s time to move mine, and your column is helpful. However, I have always wondered why you can’t just replant them right away. After all, they spend the summer in the ground if you don’t move them. But I’ve planted daffs right after I dug them, in June, and they didn’t do well at all. And these were my most vigorous growers. So why do they need to be stored until fall?
     –Lucy Goszkowski, Annapolis

A    Many bulbs are damaged in digging. Storing them before planting in the fall allows the wounds to callus. When bulbs are planted immediately after digging in the summer, damaged bulbs will rot. If you don’t mind gaps in your new planting, go ahead and replant the same day you dig.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Tie right to stop losing big fish

In the decade-plus I have worked at a local sports store, I have swapped many yarns about losing big fish. The recurring theme is broken lines.
    Odd, I once thought. Of all the fish I’ve lost, and believe me that number is considerable, there have been very few that simply broke me off. Now I’m not counting the rascals that cornered the line across a concrete bridge pier or a barnacle-studded dock piling, threaded themselves through submerged rubble or wrapped off on my engine. I mean fish that broke the line by hard pulling.
    How long had the line been on their reels, I wondered. The short story is monofilament line in use over two seasons is not to be relied upon. The line might still seem stout enough, but knot strength is always the first thing to degrade and the main culprit in any break-off.
    If the line was fresh but the setup had been used a number of times, had landed a lot fish and had always held up, I had an easy answer: Your setup just wore itself out. You can’t expect those knots to last forever. Repeated stress will eventually weaken the line‘s structure. The knots have to be renewed, and the more frequently you stress your line, the more frequently the knots should be retied.
    If the angler had freshly made the setups, I would inquire if the end of the line where it failed had a little curlicue shape, like a pig’s tail. That curlicue is the sign of an improperly tied knot slipping free. If there was a piece of mono handy, I could even duplicate the event.
    If none of the above, I would ask the angler to tie the knot for me. Then I would put the hook in a vice and give the line a substantial pull. The connection would usually fail far below the breaking strength of the line. Or it would simply slip out.

Knot Up
    If your knots are in danger of failing, the solution is simplicity.
    Attempt to learn a dozen good knots at once and you’ll remember none.
    The better way to begin is by choosing just one knot, practice tying it several times and stick with it until you can do it without thinking.
    The knot I suggest for starters is the improved clinch knot, sometimes called the fisherman’s knot. It is the knot I most frequently use for tying my line to hooks and lures, and it is probably the most popular knot in use today.
    Only after mastering this knot should you progress to learning others. I suggest the Palomar next. It is one of the stronger and easier-to-tie connections, but its application is limited. The shortcoming will become obvious as you learn to tie it.
    The next in importance is the barrel knot for tying two sections of line together, a leader to the main line for instance.
    Others knots are useful in certain circumstances, but the point is to learn and master one at a time.
    One more thing: Always moisten the line with saliva (for lubrication) when pulling it tight. Otherwise heat from the friction of the knot tightening will weaken the line.
    Another thing: If you’re intent on landing the next big fish you hook, replace your line often and begin each outing by cutting off the hook or lure, discarding the first 15 feet of line (it gets the most wear), replacing your leader (if you use one) and retying your knots. Examine each bend closely upon completion. If they don’t look perfect, cut them off and tie them again. Your lost fish ratio due to break-offs will plummet. I guarantee it.

Sometimes it takes fish to catch fish

Chumming is one of the simplest and most effective methods of getting a limit of rockfish this time of year. The fish have just schooled up and are hungry from spring spawning. Here’s how it worked for me one recent June morning.
    I try to be careful when I get a bite when chumming, immediately easing the reel clicker off to eliminate any resistance on the line, thumbing the spool lightly as I remove the rod from its holder and letting the fish run off a bit before setting the hook.
    But this guy just grabbed my bait and ran, setting the reel to screaming and hooking himself before I could even touch the rod. By the time I got the rod under control, the powerful striper had the line over its shoulder and was headed for the horizon.
    As we arrived at Hackett’s Bar at the mouth of the Severn, 30 or so boats were scattered off the big green can marking the edge of the channel, waiting for the bite to begin.
    We had already investigated a number of alternate locations (Podickery, the Bay Bridge and Dolly’s Lump) after launching our skiff at Sandy Point State Park that morning. Having found no promising marks on our fish finder, Hackett’s was our best and last hope.
    I wanted to be off the water before 11am, when the mass of non-fishing recreational boaters shows up on weekends, turning the waters into a washing machine of conflicting wakes. It would turn out to be very close.
    Dropping anchor, we noted the charter boat Becky D sitting nearby. That was a good sign. Ed Darwin is an experienced skipper, and if he was in the area, we probably couldn’t have chosen any better.

Setting Up for the Chum Bite
    Setting up in 35 feet of water, I lowered our weighted chum bag — a gallon of frozen, ground menhaden — over the side and tied it off on a cleat at about the 15-foot level. Many anglers hang their bags over the stern near the surface, but I’ve found that having the chum source nearer the bottom can bring the fish in closer so that they can more easily find our baits, particularly when the current is running strong.
    Our rods are rigged with fish-finder rigs, sliding nylon sleeves on the main line with an integral snap for our two-ounce sinkers. The main line is tied to a swivel that acts as a slider stop, followed by three feet of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader tied to the hook.
    We used 7/0 Mustad super sharp live-bait hooks. That large size is necessary because we were using big pieces of bait. Our menhaden were cut in vertical pieces about two inches wide, from large, fresh fish. When a striper picks up the bait and moves off, the line will slide through the sleeve where the sinker is attached. The fish will not feel its weight.
    For a good, solid hook set, feed line into the run and give the fish a few seconds to get the meal well back in its mouth before striking. Striking too early will often pull the menhaden chunk out of the fish’s mouth, especially with the large baits we use to attract larger fish.
    Change baits every 20 minutes to keep the scent trails fresh and the baits attractive. Rather than discarding the old pieces of menhaden, we cut them into smaller chunks and distribute them widely into the current to further encourage the rockfish to feed aggressively.


•   •   •
    Our first fish that hit that morning turned out to be the largest of the trip, a fat male that weighed about 15 pounds. We limited out by 11:30am with three more fish in the 10-pound range.

Mars still lights up the night
Thursday’s first-quarter moon appears high in the southwest at sunset and sets in the west around 1am. Each following night, darkness finds the waxing gibbous moon a dozen degrees farther east, providing almost an hour of additional moonlight. 
 
Friday, the moon is 15 degrees to the right of Mars, but come Saturday the two are practically on top of one another, separated by only two degrees. The red planet is just to the upper right of the moon as darkness falls, and they stay quite tight until setting around 2am. At -0.8 magnitude, Mars outshines any star — only Sirius is brighter, and the Dog Star is gone from view for the season. 
 
Two months ago Mars was even brighter, as the planet was at opposition from the sun with earth directly between the two. Imagine opposition as if you were seated at the movie theater, the light from the projector streaming from behind you to the screen. The screen itself isn’t illuminated, but instead it reflects the projected light back to your eyes. As you turn your gaze from straight ahead, or if you shifted the projector, the reflected image grows dimmer. That’s what’s happening now, as earth’s faster orbit hustles it away from Mars, diminishing the angle of reflected light.
 
To see a simulation of the intricate dance between earth and Mars as they travel around the sun, go to http://tinyurl.com/9dtvspa.

Sunday the moon has another partner, the first-magnitude star Spica. The brightest star in the constellation Virgo, Spica is just a couple degrees to the moon’s right. A dozen degrees to the west of the pair is Mars, while a dozen degrees to their east is Saturn.
 
Monday the moon shines 10 degrees to the right of Saturn, while Tuesday it is five degrees to the left of the ringed planet.
 
As the sun sets Wednesday, the moon appears low in the southeast. Just a few degrees below the nearly full moon is the first-magnitude red-giant Antares, the heart of Scorpius the scorpion. Antares means literally the opposite, or rival, of Mars, because of its own reddish hue. Compare the two for yourself.
Last winter was hard on this easy-to-grow fruit tree — but not fatal
The winter of 2013-2014 was so severe that it killed fig trees back to the ground. Many plants also suffered severe rabbit damage at the base of the young stems with smooth bark. Rabbits eat the smooth brown bark at times when other food sources are scarce.
 
As we are located at the northern climatic range for growing figs, we need to anticipate winter damage at least once every 10 to 15 years. According to my records, the last time fig plants were killed back to the ground was during the winter of 1997-1998.
 
If the stems and branches are not exhibiting new growth by early June, the tops of the plants have been killed. However, if you look closely at the ground beneath you should see new shoots emerging from the roots.
 
Cut the dead stems as close to the ground as possible and use them next winter for starting the fire in your fireplace or wood stove. Fig wood ignites very quickly and makes good kindling. 
 
Allow the new shoots to grow two to three feet tall before thinning. To avoid crowding, allow at least 3 feet of space between new stems. Select only the more vigorous stems to develop and prune out the unwanted ones. Do not simply break them away but use clean, sharp pruners to remove stems close to the roots. If you break the unwanted stems, you are likely to see additional sprouting that you will have to remove later.
 
This year’s new growth will not produce figs. If you do see figs developing in the axils of the leaves, rub them away with your hands. Allowing the fruit to develop on the new growth will weaken and dwarf the stem.
 
Allow the new stems to grow five to six feet tall before pruning away the tip of each. Tip pruning will stimulate multiple branching, which will provide more fruit for the coming years and prevent the stems from getting too tall. Preventing the stems of figs from growing above six feet facilitates harvesting. 
 
I have never fertilized my figs in the 20 years that I have been growing them here in Deale. Fertilizing figs makes them difficult to manage. If the summer foliage has a good dark green color, it is best not to fertilize them. The plants will tolerate a wide range of soils and are not sensitive to different soil pH.  
 
Figs are a fruit crop that I recommend to home gardeners because they require little attention and never need to be sprayed. Pruning to facilitate harvesting is all the attention they need. 
 
If rabbits are a problem there are several preventions. Surrounding the area with two-foot-tall chicken wire is the simplest if you have an extensive planting. If you only have a few plants, there are white plastic wraps that expand as the trunk grows. You can also solve the problem by loosely wrapping the trunks with two layers of chicken wire.
 
There are several varieties of figs offered by mail order nurseries.  I grow Brown Turkey (pictured) and Golden Egyptian. I have not seen any differences in hardiness between these two varieties.  Both were killed to the ground this winter.
Some days, they listen
It was an ideal morning at Hacketts Bar (38° 51'; 76° 25'). A flood tide was just making up, a gentle southerly wind caressed the waters and the sun was hidden by a thin cloudbank that permitted just the right amount of warmth to permeate the air. 
 
The anchored fishing boats were strung out more or less in a line from just off of the green can in 25 feet of water due east to depths of 40 or more feet. We had anchored up in the middle, our chum bag trailing from a stern cleat and our baits settling nicely. Within minutes, we had action. 
 
My fishing partner was Vince Ransom who had accompanied his wife, Tarin Fuller, down to Annapolis from their art gallery, Iandor Fine Arts, in the Ironbound area of Newark, New Jersey. They were spending a few days with my sculptor wife and me in an artists’ meeting combined with a bit of fishing.
 
Vince once lived on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, becoming an insatiable angler, but he had been unable to continue his sport since moving to New Jersey. I hoped to help him remedy that.
 
We had four rods out using cut menhaden for bait. His was the first to go down. I netted a nice seven-pounder for him a few minutes later, and his long fishless spell was finally broken. “You don’t know how much I’ve missed this,” he said. His demeanor had changed, his whole frame relaxing, his face beaming.
 
Usually when you’re trying to show someone an especially good time on the Bay, things don’t go the way you planned. This time was different. Vince must have had a pile of charitable acts banked in his karma bin because his baits were seldom without some kind of attention from the rockfish.
 
We had several throwbacks and a few shorts, but we released all the fish under 23 inches and little by little we accumulated some very nice rock in our cooler. For the last fish, we chose to hold out for over 30 inches. That strategy is often self-defeating and this time appeared no exception. The bite stalled. 
 
We made to pull up our gear when I had a good run. I missed the strike, but we stayed put, thinking a new school of fish was arriving. But nothing happened until we made ready to move yet again. Vince immediately had a strong fish on, but the hook pulled.
 
Our remaining bait was running low with all the attention from the throwbacks, and we were also running out of time. But I believed Vince had some special juju, and we were going to capitalize on it or go home short a fish.
 
By this time getting a bite with every decision to move had become a running joke. We began threatening a move whenever we had gone a while without something nosing our baits. Eerily, a bite or a fish (though not a keeper) was almost always the result.
 
Finally, with just a chunk or two of menhaden left, I called out over the stern: “This is the very last time. We are going to go, and we need a big fish, not one of these little guys you’ve been sending us. And we need it right now, or we really are going home.”
 
I know that sounds silly. But what is more preposterous is that Vince’s rod promptly bent over in the holder, line screaming off the reel. Fifteen minutes later I netted a gleaming, 34-inch striped bass fat as a fireplug, the biggest fish landed on my boat this year.
 
If you’ve been on the water long enough, you know that peculiar things can happen.