Seasons by the Sea: Feisty, Fabulous Fish
In his “New Englands Prospect,” published in 1634, William Wood wrote: “the basse is one of the best fishes in the country, and though men are soon wearied with other fish, yet are they never with basse. It is a delicate, fine, fat, fast fish, having a bone in his head which contains a saucerfull of marrow sweet and good, pleasant to the pallat and wholesome for the stomach.”
Delicate, fine, fat, fast, and fabulous, I say! Striped bass are, without a doubt, my favorite local fish.
Feisty and flavorful, striped bass have a somewhat firm texture with a good flake. Fluke and flounder are wonderful, tender and bland, but bass has a sweet flavor that is compatible with all kinds of ingredients. You can pan-sear, grill, broil, bake, steam, and fry them. Try them Chinese-style with black bean sauce, ginger, carrots, peppers, and snow peas. Provencal-style with chopped tomatoes, thyme, garlic, and black olives strewn around the fillets. Or my latest favorite, coated with a nasturtium leaf pesto.
Striped bass, Morone saxatilis or stripers, breed in fresh water, live in salt water, and can be found in rivers, bays, inlets, estuaries, and creeks. They are a favorite for saltwater recreational fishermen. Members of the temperate bass family (which includes white perch and white bass), striped bass are native to the East Coast and can be found from the lower St. Lawrence River in Canada to northern Florida and along portions of the Gulf of Mexico. In the Chesapeake Bay, they can reach four feet long and weigh over 50 pounds. But they average 8 to 10 pounds.
Their coloring can be light green, olive, steel blue, brown, or black with seven or eight distinctive dark stripes running along their silvery sides. They can live as long as 40 years. The females are larger than males — most stripers over 30 pounds are female. The larger fish used to be called “bulls,” but once it was noted that most of the biggies were girls, they were renamed “cows.”
A schooling species, they move around in small groups when young, then feed and migrate in larger schools once mature. The only striped bass that are prone to more solitary wanderings are the larger, sexually mature females. Maybe that’s because they know they’re being called cows!
Stripers are also known as linesiders, rollers, squidhounds, and greenheads. They eat a variety of foods like alewives, flounder, menhaden, mummichogs, sand lance, silver hake, and smelts, but they are so fond of eel that that species is sometimes referred to as “striper candy.”
Striped bass can also claim credit for helping start one of America’s first pubic schools. In 1670, the coastal striped bass fisheries were making so much money that the Plymouth colony was able to establish a free school from the income.
The population of striped bass has had periods of abundance and scarcity. For almost 30 years after 1897 there were no reports of catches. Numbers increased in the 1940s, followed by more ups and downs. Pollutants in spawning grounds, dam building, fishing pressure, and the feeding and nutritional problems of larvae are all reasons for the decline and resurgence.
Although they are most plentiful in spring and fall, stripers are currently abundant in our waters. So whether you catch or purchase this delicate, fine, fat, fast fish, enjoy it in some of the following recipes, or simply drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil.
Striped Bass With Chinese Black Bean Sauce
This is one of my favorite ways to prepare striped bass. You can wrap the fish in parchment paper ahead of time and bake it just before serving. If it overcooks a teeny bit, that’s okay: The steam from the parchment package keeps it moist. Serve with jasmine rice.
Black bean sauce:
1/2 cup prepared Chinese black bean sauce
1 Tbsp. grated ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
Combine sauce ingredients, set aside.
3/4 cup slivered baby carrots
3/4 cup thinly-sliced scallions
3/4 cup sugar snap peas or snow peas, sliced lengthwise in half
3/4 cup red bell pepper, thinly sliced
4 six-ounce striped bass fillets, skin on
4 pieces parchment paper, about 9 by 12 inches each
Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Lay each fish fillet in middle of parchment paper, slightly off-center lengthwise. Dab one to two tablespoons of sauce onto each fillet, depending on how salty or spicy you want it.
Top the fillets with a handful of slivered and sliced vegetables, about a half-cup for each piece of fish. Fold the parchment over the fish, then roll the edges together from one end to the other. You should have a tightly sealed, half-moon-shaped package. The parchment paper is crackly and stiff, but miraculously will hold whatever shape you form it into.
Bake fish approximately 15 minutes. You can serve it in the packages on each plate, or make it easier for your guests by opening up and plating the fish for them. Just make sure they see how cool the packages are before you empty them.
Striped Bass Fillets With Nasturtium Pesto
Who knew you could eat nasturtium leaves? Flowers, yes, but leaves? This recipe for nasturtium pesto was created by Paul Roman, the awesome chef at the Living Room. It was The Star’s editor, David Rattray’s, idea to put it on striped bass before grilling, baking, or broiling it. All are genius.
4 six-ounce fillets of striped bass (or a whole, cleaned fish if grilling)
4 cups packed nasturtium leaves
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup toasted pistachios
Salt and pepper to taste
A few dashes of Tabasco sauce
1/4 to 1/2 cup good olive oil
Purée nasturtium leaves with garlic, pistachios, salt and pepper, and Tabasco. Scrape down sides and purée again. Then slowly drizzle in olive oil until it is the desired consistency.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees or prepare barbecue grill to medium hot. Slather fish fillets with some of the pesto, but reserve some for topping fish after cooking. If cooking in oven, bake until fish is just opaque throughout, or about nine minutes per inch of thickness.
If grilling, place fish carefully on a well-oiled grill, turn only once, carefully, and cook until done. Top with more pesto and serve with lemon wedges.