I called Donnie Benefit the other day, fisherman extraordinaire and, as it turns out, an everyday kind of cook. He was starting to prepare dinner for a mess of friends; Scallops and Apple Betty were on the menu.
I asked him how he cooks his scallops.
“Tonight I’m frying them in swamp fire,” he said. “That’s a secret recipe.”
I guessed it was a mix of spices, but I couldn’t pin him down.
He takes his 36-foot fishing boat Payback out for conch most of the year, and said he’s not as crazy about the annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby as some of the other Island fishermen.
“I don’t follow it,” Donnie said. “You’d have to ask Peter Jackson how the Derby’s going. I just decide to go fishing and call the guys up. I’m not nuts about it [the Derby] because I also have to make money.”
He’s been fishing commercially for decades, mostly off Payback these days, but he also harpooned swordfish with Skip Mayhew and the Larsens back in the day.
“We fished off the Grand Banks, but you can’t have a life and go swordfishing,” Donnie said. “I used to fish on the beach with Dick Hathaway. I fish with Coop now. We go cod fishing, tuna fishing. I take Peter Jackson and Tommy Teller. Most of the people that go on my boat now are over 75. They usually don’t put up with bullshit.”
His daughter Mikela used to fish with him more often before she started playing sports.
“She’s got field hockey now, and that takes up 90 percent of her time,” he said, “and 90 percent of my bank account.”
I asked him about recipes for the Derby fish — striped bass, bluefish, false albacore, and bonito. He said he doesn’t like to eat those types of fish.
“I like to eat codfish and haddock, halibut and flounder, the stuff that doesn’t taste like fish,” he said.
He does have a striped bass recipe that’s deceptively called Galvanized Codfish: “Cook some stewed tomatoes with onions, garlic, salt and pepper, and a half a stick of butter — a whole stick if you like butter,” he explained. “Take a striped bass and cut one fillet lengthwise again and throw it in a baking pan. Throw the cooked stewed tomatoes and garlic over the top of the whole fish. Cover it with Pepperidge Farm white bread you kept in the refrigerator a couple of days, and one sleeve of Ritz crackers. Mash that up with salt and pepper and throw it on top of the stewed tomatoes and then sprinkle the top with some Parmesan cheese and bake it in the oven.”
He’s got another recipe for bluefish that he says is pretty tasty, even though he doesn’t particularly care for the fish.
“They’re called fish packs,” he tells me. “You put the bluefish on some foil with some mayo, a couple of slices of onion and a slice of lemon, and you roll it up in the foil. Throw it on the grill for about 15 minutes, you can cook them up on the beach or anyplace.”
He’s got some recipes for conch too, but we’ll save that for after the Derby.