Have Your Fish and Eat It, Too
Over the last few years, I have generally kept only those rockfish that my family and I could immediately eat, either giving away or releasing any extras landed. This season, however, the bite has been so good for so long and the fish so delicious that my policy has changed.
By trial and error, I’ve developed two favorite ways to preserve this great fish.
The easiest is freezing, but of course it’s really not that simple. There are rules to follow for best results, and the rules start as soon as you catch the fish. Rule one is to immediately bury the fish in ice. A smack with a small bat on the top of its head is also a good idea.
The rockfish have been spectacular this summer — the best in memory from Baltimore Light across to Love Point in the north down to Poplar Island across to Chesapeake Beach. There are virtually no rockfish north of that zone or farther south. The theory for this concentration is that a bumper crop of baitfish is holding the stripers there. Whatever the reason, anglers have been getting fantastic results on both sides of the Bay fishing in 35 to 40 feet of water. Chumming, live-lining, jigging and trolling, it doesn’t seem to matter; all work well.
Stunning the fish not only prevents further buildup of the undesirable lactic acid that is produced by the fish’s struggles but also ensures it doesn’t uncover itself after it’s immersed in ice. Some anglers, additionally, like to cut one of the fish’s gill arches to bleed it, further insuring fresher taste.
The preferred cleaning method is to promptly fillet the fish, removing the skin so the dark meat along the fish’s lateral line can be excised. Use a sharp knife to make angled incisions on either side of the area and remove it. This dark flesh is fatty and strong-flavored, and that taste will migrate into the adjacent muscle tissue over time when the fish is frozen. This dark flesh is also where any toxins the fish may have accumulated over its life are concentrated.
A vacuum packer is an excellent way to wrap and preserve your catch. If you don’t have one, putting the fish in a zipper bag will do just as well — but only if you add water to cover the fillets. After squeezing out all the air and much of the water, seal it closed.
The fresh flavor of your fish can be maintained for months with this method, though inevitably, approaching a year, the fish begins to acquire a stronger flavor. Adding tomato based sauces when cooking can compensate for any loss of quality.
A second way to store your catch into the future is making rockfish biltong. Fish biltong (or bokkoms) is a South African method of jerking or preserving meat and fish. A low-heat process, it combines a citrus juice marinade with salt, spices and drying and results in flavorfully preserved meats that keep for long periods.
Start out with about two pounds of fillets of rockfish. Cut into strips of about one-half inch wide and five to eight inches long. Make a marinade of:
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1 Tbs coarse salt
1 Tbs paprika
1 Tbs ground coriander
1 Tbs fresh ground black pepper
1 tsp dried garlic powder
1 Tbs brown sugar
2 tsp cayenne (optional)
Place the rockfish strips and the marinade in a glass bowl and refrigerate for at least five hours, occasionally stirring to ensure complete penetration. Then remove the fish and thoroughly pat dry.
A food dehydrator is the most efficient way to dry the rockfish strips, but if you don’t have one, your oven or toaster oven will do almost as well. Cover the bottom of the oven with a double layer of aluminum foil to catch any drips of moisture, oil the racks to prevent sticking and hang or lay the strips of fish across the racks (do not let the strips touch).
Setting the heat control on the lowest setting (or about 140 degrees) and keeping the oven door open a crack to permit air circulation allow the fish to dry completely — at least six hours or until the strips are hard. Then dust the pieces with salt and pepper and a bit more coriander.
As a snack, the fish biltong is delicious and, refrigerated, can be kept for months. The dried meat can also be shredded, soaked in water to soften and added to soups, stir-fries and salads.