Catch It, Cook It and Eat It
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.