Fisherman adds striped bass fish cakes to his culinary universe

John Schillinger holds a bonito he caught last year with his fishing pal and charter skipper Phil Cronin. We hope they arrive soon in greater numbers.
Photo courtesy of Capawock Charters

John Schillinger holds a bonito he caught last year with his fishing pal and charter skipper Phil Cronin. We hope they arrive soon in greater numbers.

When it comes to fish, I am not a food snob. I am an everyman. I occupy a spot in the fishing culinary universe somewhere between Gorton’s frozen fish sticks slathered in ketchup and fish submerged in a sauce built with the complexity of DNA.

I like to cook but I am unwilling to treat chefs with the reverence reserved for heart transplant surgeons and successful quarterbacks — particularly if they have never turned a profit in a restaurant or won a super bowl ring.

And I do not think the tab for a good dinner out on the Vineyard should be equal to the cost of a half-day charter. Which is why I prefer to cook at home.

Fresh fish is one of the luxuries we enjoy on the Vineyard. If you can’t catch a fish, there are some very good back-ups. When the fishing is slow I rely on Louie and Jeff at The Net Result.

Earlier this season, I had pretty good luck with striped bass and that is how I stumbled upon a recipe that I used to concoct bass fish cakes. In my view, striped bass does not freeze well. A few months in the freezer and it is best used for stew.

Bass is a dense fish. It lends itself to spices and a charcoal grill but can get a bit chewy when overcooked. The beauty of fish cakes is that they make great leftovers and freeze well.

In years past, I followed the traditional method of making fish cakes that involved cooked potato mixed with cooked fish formed into patties. They were fine, but I thought there must be a better way than reworking the two main ingredients.

For inspiration, I turned to America’s Test Kitchen, a great show that airs on PBS. Think of it as the food equivalent of Consumer Reports, the nonprofit consumer review organization.

Each week, the hosts dissect a recipe and create dishes that are not out of the reach of the average home cook. I went on their web site and found a recipe for salmon cakes that came complete with an instructional video.

I substituted bass. I have followed the recipe three times and experimented each time. I use 2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard as opposed to 1 teaspoon because I like the added kick. I also throw in some Old Bay. One time I added dill from the garden. The end result is pretty tasty and simple to knock off.

If there is one problem, it is having enough uneaten fish cakes left to freeze. Here is the basic recipe from the Test Kitchen in a nutshell.

Catch a striped bass, although I suspect fluke, sea bass or even scup would do.

Into a large bowl throw: 3 tbsp panko breadcrumbs; 1 thinly sliced scallion; 1 minced shallot; 2 tbsp parsley; 2 tbsp mayo; 1 tsp Dijon mustard; 4 tsp lemon juice; 3/4 tsp salt; pinch of cayenne.

Cut 1.5 pounds of fresh striper into 1 inch pieces and chop in a food processor in three batches so as not to overload the processor. In my case, I trim the red meat out of the fillets.

Add the fish to the bowl and fold in to the mixture.

Use 1/3 cup dry measure and drop cakes onto a tray.

Pick up the roughly formed cakes and coat with Panko bread crumbs on each side.

Drop into pan with about 1/2 cup hot oil and cook about 2 minutes on each side until golden brown.

For the sophisticated

I will admit that at about $20 a pound, striped bass from the fish market may be a little too costly to turn into a dish once reserved for leftover cod.

So I have included a recipe published in the New York Times magazine. The more sophisticated among us will be happy to name-drop.

The recipe was included in Visiting the Source | A Chef in the Field: Striped Bass, by Jeff Schwarz and Greg Kessler.

“Grilling striped bass is my favorite way to cook the fish because the skin takes on a char that goes well with other strong flavors like oregano-laden chimichurri sauce,” the authors wrote. “Usually paired with meat, chimichurri plays off of bass just as beautifully, as long as you use a light vinegar like champagne or rice wine, rather than balsamic.”

Huh? What is chimichurri sauce, I thought.

“In preparing the fish, make sure the grill is hot first and be patient about flipping — you usually want about 4 minutes per side for a 7 to 8 ounce piece. Drop some local lacinato kale and thinly sliced yellow squash onto the grill as well for a charred vegetable side.”

Huh? What is lacinato kale, I thought.

Anyhow, here is the short version. Coat the fish with olive oil and throw it on the grill. Top with a spoonful of the chimichurri sauce.

Chimichurri Sauce: 1 cup firmly packed flat-leaf parsley; 2 tablespoons fresh oregano; 1 small garlic clove or 1 small shallot; 1 tablespoon champagne or rice wine vinegar; 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice; 1/3 cup olive oil; ¼ teaspoon red chili flakes; salt.

1. Finely chop the parsley, oregano, and garlic or shallot. Place in a medium bowl. 2. Stir in the vinegar, lime juice, olive oil, and chili flakes. Add salt to taste.

Lobsterville 24/7 ends

I hear a good share of complaints in tackle shops, on the beach, and on the phone about fishing, fishermen, and the world in general. I have my own share of complaints. But sometimes good results can come from speaking to those responsible.

In my opinion, Lobsterville Beach is one of the premier fly fishing spots for striped bass in New England. Unfortunately, there is limited space to park at the beginning and end of the approximately mile long beach. Town leaders have the difficult task of dividing up limited parking between residents and non-residents.

For years, the signs posted along the resident-only side of the first Lobsterville Beach parking area said the parking restriction was in effect 24 hours and included a threatening image of a tow truck. It was a disappointing image for an Islander who had arrived at night to find the non-resident area full, the resident-only area virtually empty, and know bass were likely breaking right off the beach.

Serious striped bass fishermen come out when the sun goes down. After about 5 pm, fishermen are pretty much allowed to fish from most any Island beach, even in towns that adhere to a strict resident-only parking policy. For example, Chilmark allows fishermen to park in the Squibnocket beach parking lot after 5 pm.

More than a month ago, I raised the sign topic with Aquinnah selectman Beverly Wright and asked if the town would consider modifying the rule. She said the town was preparing to order new signs and recommended that I speak to Aquinnah Police Chief Randhi Belain. So I did.

For those of you not familiar with Chief Belain, he is an Islander in the strictest sense of the word. A member of the Wampanoag Tribe, he is the kind of congenial, accessible police chief every small community would hope to have lead its department.

When I spoke to Chief Belain, I asked him if he would support modifying the existing parking policy. He readily agreed.

On June 18, on Chief Belain’s recommendation, Aquinnah selectmen Beverly Wright, Spencer Booker, and Jim Newman agreed that from 5 pm to 9 am, non-residents may park in the resident-only section of Lobsterville Beach. I think those changes reflect the spirit of neighborliness that is integral to our Island culture and fishermen. Thanks.