Gone Fishin' : Hookers and chefs make good use of stripers
I think restaurant ownership is in the same category as fishing in the Bering Straits for king crab, when it comes to working at tough jobs in tough conditions surrounded by crazy people.
Many people think they can cook, and many people are good at it. But few people have what it takes to run a successful restaurant. I am always impressed by people who are able to run a restaurant that turns out consistently good food, maintain a well-trained staff and who do not succumb to the urge, as I once did when I was a restaurant manager, to push a complaining customer into the coat room.
When I find a good restaurant, I appreciate it (and I never complain by the coatroom).
I rarely order striped bass in restaurants. I suppose it is too familiar a fish in my house, but I am always interested in how experienced chefs cook striper.
Other than a few weeks during the summer, when the crush of people becomes too much, my wife Norma and I regularly eat dinner at the Slice of Life in Oak Bluffs. The service and food are consistently great.
I caught longtime chef Pete Smyth during a rare quiet moment in the kitchen. Pete described one of the ways he likes to cook striped bass, a frequent special on the menu this time of year.
Season the fillet on both sides with salt and pepper. Make sure your pan is very hot. Nonstick is a good choice, he said. Add olive oil to the pan.
Lay the fish on the pan skin side up. Give it just a minute or two. The idea is to sear the fish. Then take the entire pan and place it in a hot oven for about five minutes. The amount of time depends on the thickness of the fish.
Remove the pan and flip the fish. Add some butter and fresh thyme. A squeeze of lemon is also a good idea. Spoon the buttery juices over the fish then serve.
"I think it's a great local fish, " said Pete. "I have so much fun cooking it."
Photo by Jim Fraser
Whenever my wife and I are off-Island and have a little time to spare, we have dinner in La Cucina Sul Mare, an elegant Italian restaurant at 237 Main Street in Falmouth that we happened on years ago.
A few weeks ago, one of the specials was striped bass. I called chef Mark Cilfone, who along with his wife Cynthia owns the restaurant, and asked him to describe the striped bass dish.
"That evening I served what I call "Bass Limone," said Mark.
He said he gets his striped bass from local fishermen and fillets it himself. Taking a good size piece he dredges the fillet in flour and then egg.
"I pan brown it till it is golden brown. I flip it over, throw it in the hot oven (400 degrees) for about seven, eight minutes. Then I pull it out and I make my sauce with the bass right in the pan. That consists of shallots, butter (about a tablespoon), and a couple of squeezes of a lemon, white wine, a little fresh parsley, salt and pepper. Then you just cook the bass in that sauce for a couple of minutes. It will reduce the sauce a little and as it's reducing, the bass is finishing off and picks up a lot of the flavor of the sauce. And finish it off with capers."
Now that I have described what a professional does with striped bass, I offer my recipe. The first ingredient is freshness. If you do not catch you own striper, the Island's fish markets can provide locally caught fish.
I prefer to trim fillets of all the red or dark meat. It is a luxury, but then I caught the fish myself.
I cut the fish into one-inch cubes. Sometimes I dredge the fish in milk, or egg and milk, or sometimes I just go straight to the flour. I roll the cubes in flour that includes a good portion of Old Bay seasoning mix.
I fry the fish in a mixture of olive oil and butter. I am not sure why, but I think I saw someone do it that way on the Food Channel, and I liked the idea.
If I am not ambitious, I brown the fish on all sides, give it a good spritz of lemon and serve. If I am feeling creative I lightly brown the fish, then add minced garlic, wait a moment, then add anything green I find in the refrigerator or garden (try to avoid grass). Fresh parsley and chives are good. I add a splash of wine and spritz of lemon. At the last moment, I add freshly chopped tomatoes because it needs red.
The object is to be creative. I welcome recipes and will share them with my guinea pigs, I mean readers.
For many of us one of the pleasures of the Ag Fair is consuming a sausage smothered in onions and peppers and washing it down with a charbroiled burger from the West Tisbury Fire Department booth.
I also enjoy walking through the exhibit hall to see the many creative ways people express their love and appreciation of the Vineyard's hunting and fishing traditions.
Martha's Vineyard Hospital surgeon and avid fisherman Denise Fraser used her nimble fingers to hook a rug with a distinctive fish theme. Strips are cut from old clothing picked up in thrift shops.
The striped bass rug bordered by designs of popular lures will be one of the many exhibits on display this week. See you at the fair.
Fish managers miss the boat
In this column last week, I described the slow commercial striped bass season (Commercial Bass Season Numbers Lag). According to the state Division of Marine Fisheries the average number of pounds landed per fishing day is 35,000 compared to 50,000 last year, about a 30-percent decrease.
What those numbers mean is not clear, even to fishery officials. It could reflect less fishing effort, a change in the distribution of fish stocks, or a combination of those elements.
I received an email from Fred Jennings, state chairman of Stripers Forever (www.stripersforever.org), a not for profit organization dedicated to making the striped bass a gamefish.
He said, "The divergence between the February ASMFC finding that 'striped bass stocks along the Atlantic coast are healthy and growing' and the widespread reports from up and down the Atlantic coast this season of very poor striped bass fishing from both recreational and commercial anglers suggests a disconnect between this fishery's managers and the real state of the striped bass fishery. The claim that fishing is slow because these fish are offshore or elsewhere is simply insufficient to explain the widespread gloomy reports."
He said a more likely explanation is that this fishery is in trouble again, and fisheries managers are likely in denial about reports of poor fishing results. "After all," he wrote, "no one wants to admit to a growing problem they have failed to correct, within their realm of responsibility, especially if it's their job to do so. It's much better to paint a rosy picture and play on the many uncertainties of the assessment process than to face an unpleasant truth."
Mr. Jennings thinks commercial fishing for striped bass should end. He said the recreational fishery should be managed to encourage catch-and-release by requiring single barbless hooks and circle hooks for bait. "These stripers inhale their prey and a barbed treble hook way down in their gills or throat cannot be extracted without severe and usually fatal damage," he said.
I agree with many of Mr. Jennings's recommendations, for example the use of circle hooks. I do not favor gamefish status for striped bass. Pitting recreational fishermen against commercial fishermen uses up energy that would be better spent protecting the fishery resource. If commercial fishermen think they have a stake in protecting the future of striped bass, the more responsible fishermen will support regulatory controls designed to provide a resource able to sustain both groups.
More limited commercial entry would make sense. The hook and line fishery provides a high-quality commercial product that could help to sustain a struggling fishing industry.
Go to the Stripers Unlimited website for more information on their efforts and their arguments.