On Labor Day the whole Island exhaled, and for the first time all summer my husband and I went for a ride in his boat. When we met 35 years ago, Whit was a charter guide out of Menemsha and much of our early courtship involved being out on the water together. Then came two children, a slew of pets, and, of course, work. Time on the water became a memory.
We packed a picnic, rowed out to his mooring in Lambert’s Cove and climbed aboard Vai Via, our 20-foot Seacraft. I wanted to try something new, something we’d never done before, so instead of heading west toward Gay Head, as usual, we turned east and headed for Chappaquiddick. Just off Makonikey we saw lots of terns and gulls bunched up and diving into a patch of water churning with fish.
“I’ll take a cast or two,” Whit said. “See what they are at least.”
I love watching my husband on a boat — setting up a drift, tying on a lure, and sending out that first cast. As soon as he started reeling in he had a hit. The rod doubled over. Because of its strong, frantic fight, we assumed the fish was a blue, but when it was close enough to the boat to see clearly, there was a lovely striper.
“Hand me the tape, will you,” Whit called out. The bass measured a full 29 inches. “Shall we keep it? What do we have for tonight, or tomorrow?”
“Let’s keep it,” I decided. “It’ll only be the second one we’ve eaten all summer.” Into the fish box it went.
Continuing on to Chappy, we explored Cape Poge Bay, where we stopped to picnic. After lunch Whit carefully cleaned and skinned the striper, then rinsed the fillets in salt water. Then we puttered through Edgartown Harbor and down into the northern reaches of Katama Bay before heading home. The ride was wet, but fun, and it gave me time to think about how to prepare the fillets.
The beauty and spirit of a bass is somehow particularly humbling, and so when we catch one I want to honor it by cooking it really well. The treatment would depend on the weather, I decided. September is mercurial, so I would have to wait and see.
The next day was still summery so I decided to broil one of the fillets using a simple treatment from Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything.” Setting the broiler at 450 degrees, I preheated a cast iron pan for five minutes before adding a few tablespoons of butter and olive oil and the salted skinless fish fillet. I put the pan back under the broiler four minutes on one side, flipped it over and cooked it for three minutes on the other. This is less time than Bittman suggested, but it was perfect for the thickness of our fillet. We squeezed fresh lemon juice on it and ate it with a corn and black bean salad I’d made earlier that day and a big handful of Debby Farber’s baby arugula.
The warm weather did not last. The following morning a cool rain fell. I put on a sweater for the first time in months and never took it off. Instead of opening windows and doors, I found myself closing them. That evening it made sense to cut up the other bass fillet and cook it in a thick white bean and tomato stew flavored with bacon and saffron. This is one of my favorite preparations for striped bass. The original recipe from Bon Appetit calls for halibut but striped bass makes an excellent substitution.
That evening with the addition of a loaf of crispy French bread, a green salad, and a bottle of dry white wine we had a wintery meal worthy of this magnificent fish.
Two fillets. Two seasons. Both delicious.
White Bean and Striped Bass Stew
4 thick-cut bacon slices chopped
1 cup sliced shallots
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves chopped
1 14 1/2 oz. can petite diced tomatoes in juice
1 8-ounce bottle clam juice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
2 15 oz. cans small white beans, drained
1 1/2 pounds striped bass fillets, cut into 1 1/2 inch chunks
chopped parsley to taste
Sauté bacon and shallots in large heavy-bottomed pot over medium high heat until bacon is crisp, about 7 minutes. Add olive oil and garlic; stir 1 minute. Add tomatoes with juice, clam juice, wine, and saffron; bring to boil. Reduce heat; simmer 5 minutes. Add beans and fish; bring to simmer. Cover and simmer until fish is just opaque in center — about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add fresh parsley.