By Dennis Doyle
Striped bass is easily the most popular saltwater fish on any dinner table in the Tidewater. Bringing a premium price at the local seafood markets, often over a double sawbuck ($20) per pound, a rockfish taken in the wild is a delicacy that deserves special handling. Especially in these days of single fish limits, one should take every care to preserve its singular qualities.
Restaurant rockfish is at least three days old at its freshest; seafood market stripers may be even older depending on how long they’ve been held in storage, and area supermarkets generally feature rockfish harvested from the distant Carolinas (most commercially harvested Bay rockfish, unfortunately, go to New York).
Angler-caught fish from the Chesapeake are the very best. A fresh-from-the-Bay fillet is indeed an epicurean treasure, especially when you consider the above. But to be at their best, angler-caught fish should have prompt and careful handling to ensure they are at their very best.
One of the first rules is to quiet the fish down once caught, as soon as possible. A tap on the head will subdue the fish quickly. Never allow them to flop about on the deck and expire slowly.
One of the lesser aspects of sporting tackle is that it also allows the fish to exert maximum action in resisting the efforts of the angler to bring it in. While this does make for a great sporting experience, it also can degrade the flavor as lactic acid generated from the exertion during the fight can affect the taste and in the extreme may generate trace levels of ammonia in the fish’s bloodstream—a definite no-no for best table quality. Always exert the maximum effort your tackle will allow to land the fish as promptly as possible.
To counteract these and other flavor destructive elements, there are additional procedures that can ensure the best quality. I’m referring to steps developed by professional anglers for fish intended for sushi. Since sushi-grade fish are primarily eaten raw, the techniques are more demanding and exacting but will also provide the most pristine fillets for your table.
Bleed out rockfish as soon as possible. Reaching under the gill cover and severing a few of the gill rakers at their base will accomplish this quickly. Be sure to do this, however, outside of the fish box so its blood does not come in contact with your prizes and taint the flesh. The fish box should contain plenty of ice so that all fish are completely buried and quickly chilled down to 32 degrees as soon as possible.
Rockfish are a mild, delicate-tasting fish and easily tainted, so for the best flavor they should always be cleaned and prepared for storage the same day they are caught, preferably as soon as you’re off the water. Place the fillets in a bath of well-salted ice water, then dry them before wrapping or placing them in plastic bags. If the fish are allowed to remain whole overnight, even well chilled, their table quality will be noticeably diminished.
If you plan on cooking the fish within 24 hours it can be placed in the refrigerator until ready for the stove, otherwise, it should be immediately frozen (vacuum packed recommended). Waiting days before freezing will diminish the quality.
My favorite recipe for rockfish is to simply dry the fillets, rub them with olive oil, and add salt, pepper, and a sprinkle of dill. Then broil or bake in a 500-degree oven. Any sauces, condiments, or garnishes such as lemon, butter, hollandaise, parsley, mayo, and mustards can be added later at the diner’s discretion. Bon appetit!