In season: The pull of the sea

Chef Johnny Graham’s fish recipes.

During the summer of 1992, I met Steve Gallagher, the man who would become my husband. He had come to the Vineyard from Los Angeles to visit my sous chef, Jon Deblase, at the Roadhouse Restaurant in North Tisbury of which I was the chef/owner from 1989-1992. That summer another friend of Jon’s, Johnny Graham, rolled into town. Jon and Johnny had met at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco in 1991. Jon convinced Johnny to come east for the summer and work the line with us at the Roadhouse.

Johnny showed up with a backpack, and like an old friend: He fit right in. We were all in our twenties and worked hard putting out simple grilled local fish, lobsters, and barbecued ribs.

We hung out after hours into the night, drinking beer on warm summer nights. It was a magical time.

Johnny left that fall and went on to cook for the world-famous Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. A harsh twist of fate hit when Johnny was injured in a serious car accident and required back surgery. At that point, being in the city lost its appeal and Johnny decided to head east again. He felt the Vineyard calling him back to heal.

“I did what anyone would do after back surgery,” Johnny laughed as we recently reminisced about the old days. “I bought a motorcycle and rode it out here to the Island at the end of March. That was 1995, and that was the year I fell in love with fishing in the ocean.” He would go on to return many summers, cooking at many Island restaurants.

Johnny and his friend, Joe El-Deiry, who met the summer of 1992, spent hours and days over the years fishing the waters off the Vineyard together, usually with a group of Island friends. El-Deiry is now the chairman of the M.V. Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby (the Derby).

“I grew up fishing on lakes and rivers in Missouri. Though the techniques were not so different, the quality of the fish is so good here, ” Johnny said. “We have world-class seafood here, from lobsters to fluke, to striped bass, bonito … the list goes on. It’s incredible.”

No matter where Johnny has traveled and cooked over the years, he always comes back to the Island — just like the yellowfin tuna, bluefish, and striped bass follow the Gulf Stream north every summer to Vineyard waters.

Like most Islanders, Johnny spent summers working his tail off with the M.V. Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby light at the end of the tunnel.

“That was my reward for surviving another summer of six, seven days of cooking, I have fished the Derby religiously like it is my job every year.”

Over the years Johnny has worked as a chef at Island restaurants such as Dry Town Cafe and the Home Port Restaurant, and was the chef and owner of Johnny’s Fine Carryout (where the Net Result is now), and did a lot of private chef work. Winters have been spent in Los Angeles cooking for the Hollywood set, Vail, Colorado, and traveling. More recently he settled back in his hometown of Jefferson City, Missouri and opened a catering company, called Revel Catering and Events. He operates in Jefferson City during the winter only. Starting this season, Johnny has opened Revel Catering here on the Island.

“Great year to open a business on Martha’s Vineyard,” Johnny laughs. But Johnny knows the ebbs and flows of the Island and as always, he is happy to be here.

I asked him about the policy excluding striped bass in the Derby this year and the new size slot limit for bass, not smaller than 28 inches, and nothing bigger than 35 inches, which tends to be the big female breeders.

“I think it’s the right decision. I think we suffered in the early nineties. Then they took the bass out of the Derby and changed fishing regulations, and the bass came back,” he says. “There are more people fishing than ever; it’s good to stop and protect the bass again.”

Over the years of fishing Johnny has caught plenty of striped bass, a trophy fish for sure. These days he prefers fishing for simpler, more sustainable fish like black bass, and fluke. He feels the satisfaction of cooking and eating a fish that can still be locally caught with a relatively strong stock in local waters, and that is also constantly appreciated by his lucky clients.

Here are some of his favorite recipes.

Cornmeal-Crusted Fluke Sammie with Salsa Verde

For the fish
Cut the fresh fluke, or any flounder, into sandwich-size pieces and marinate in a little buttermilk, with a pinch of salt, for about an hour. In a separate bowl, combine 2½ cups of cornmeal with some dry spices that suit you. We used some garlic powder, paprika, onion powder, black pepper, sea salt, and Korean chili flakes.

Heat some vegetable or canola oil in a heavy saucepan or high-sided cast iron pan to around 370 degrees. Dredge the marinated fish fillets in the cornmeal mix, pressing the coating onto the piece well. Fry the filets one or two at a time until golden brown — about 3 minutes.

For the salsa verde sauce
3 Tbs. vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic
½ small white onion
1 tomatillo, cut in half
½ fresh jalapeno pepper
1 small chunk of ginger, chopped
8 oz. brewed green tea

Saute all of the above, except the tea, together in a medium saucepan. When onions are translucent, add prepared green tea and simmer for a minute. Transfer everything to a bowl and cool in the fridge.

Salsa Verde

Once cooled, transfer everything to a food processor, then add some spices, fresh herbs, and liquids to make it your own! For this one, we added:

Juice and zest of 1 lemon and 1 lime
Some cumin, coriander, and black pepper
Some olive oil, rice wine vinegar, hot sauce, and a shot of tamari
A pile of fresh herbs (parsley, cilantro, mint)
Process until smooth, adding a little water if necessary to get a condiment-like consistency.
Serve fried fluke on some toasted brioche and apply the salsa verde liberally. Enjoy!

Fluke Ceviche with Coconut

Ingredients:
About 1 pound of fluke, cut into ½ inch pieces
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 fresh habanero, chopped fine (be careful to wash your hands after!!!!)
1 small chunk of ginger, minced
Pinch of sea salt and a couple cranks of white pepper
Juice and zest of 4 limes
1 shallot, diced small
½ can unsweetened coconut milk or 7 fluid oz.

Combine everything together in a bowl and chill for about an hour before serving. Right before serving, add a pile of chopped cilantro, and then serve the ceviche over fresh greens or with chips as a snack!

Pan-Roasted Fluke with Summer Vegetables, and Gochujang Aioli
(*Fluke is summer flounder; any flounder will do)

4 ears Morning Glory Farm corn, grilled in the husk, then shaved into a bowl
4 oz. Mermaid Farm feta
1 pint North Tabor Farm cherry tomatoes
1 handful of local summer peas (shelled— snap or snow )
1 handful of torn basil
Extra virgin olive oil

Combine above ingredients and toss together with a splash of plum vinegar, some extra virgin olive oil, salt & pepper to taste. Arrange on a platter.

Sauté a couple of nice pieces of fluke with a little canola oil in a (hot) nonstick pan. When golden brown on the first side, flip the fillet and finish cooking for about a minute on the other side. Place the fish on top of the salad and dress with a little gochujang aioli.

Gochujang Aioli

½ cup prepared mayonnaise
2 tsp. gochujang paste

You can make aioli from scratch, or take the easy way: Combine mayonnaise with gochujang paste and thin with a little water to desired consistency.