Long Island is surrounded by water and the East End, where we live, is particularly blessed. Not two miles from our house is Peconic Bay, which feeds into the Long Island Sound separating New York from Connecticut. Four miles in the other direction brings you to the Atlantic Ocean. In our town, this is pure beach front territory. But travel 30 miles East and you’ll come to Montauk. Until very recently, this town was all about fish. Some people earnestly wish it would return to its roots. In the last couple of years, it’s become a party place for city hipsters. There are any number of names for these new arrivals, most of them unpleasant as in “Citiots”. But Montauk will always mean fish to those of us less recently arrived. So when we were planning a recent dinner party, I couldn’t think of a better thing to serve than a fresh-caught Whole Striped Bass caught from a boat off Montauk in the morning, delivered to our fresh fish emporium within hours, gutted, de-gilled and handed over to us the same afternoon. Talk about fresh!
Striped Bass is a much a part of Long Island as the potato fields. The New York State record for this fish was a 74 pounder caught off Montauk in 1981. Their range however is much longer than Long Island. They run from the Atlantic Coast of Eastern Canada all the way down to the St. John’s River in Florida. They are spawned in fresh water but live their adult lives in the ocean. In New York, mature fish head for the headwaters of the Hudson River in the spring. The fertilized eggs float downstream hatching a few days after spawning. They move downstream where they’re drawn to estuaries, which become nurseries for the larvae and juvenile fish in the summer. By late summer and into fall, they travel down into New York Harbor and finally, when they are large enough, they join the adult Striped Bass in the Atlantic. They’re migratory too, swimming south in the summer and heading back north and inshore in the spring.
|Our Striper’s Fish Tag|
During colonial times, there was such an abundance of Striped Bass that the early colonists used them to fertilize farm fields. They came under such pressure, that they were first fish to have harvest regulations put into place—in the 1600s in Massachusetts! In the 20th century, there were all kinds of attempts at conservation but they failed miserably. Unfortunately, in the 1980s, these failures created a collapse of the population. Strict rules were put into place and a fisheries management success story was written. By 1995, the population was re-built and returned to healthy levels. Nevertheless major restrictions still exist. Only two striped bass may be taken on any one fishing trip and those fish must be 28 inches in length. They must be tagged with the fisherman’s license number and only two per day are permitted to be caught. But for all its restrictions, there is nothing quite like Striped Bass for its subtle taste and texture. And you can cook it almost any way you could imagine! I chose to roast ours whole and how I did that was about as much an adventure as fishing for it itself.
|Colin Mather, right, outside his
Seafood Shop in Wainscott NY
When I first hit upon the idea of making Striped Bass the centerpiece of our dinner, the first place I went was to the Seafood Shop in Wainscott, which is a couple of villages over from us. Colin Mather presides over this citadel of fresh fish, clam chowders, seafood of every description and has for as long as I’ve been going there. I stopped in there on a Thursday afternoon for advice on which fish to order. Steered to Striped Bass, I ordered a whole fish to be picked up early Saturday. Off home I went in search of a recipe. The problem I encountered was that the only recipes I could find were for 1 ½ to 2 lb. fish–the sale of which New York doesn’t permit. So it was a matter of adapting what I learned and creating a recipe of my own. I chose to make a lemon and mint combination that for all the world looked like a chimichurri, the Argentine sauce more associated with beef than with fish. The fish is scored to the bone and some of the lemon and mint mixture is stuffed into the cavities created. More of the sauce plus lemon and mint are put inside the fish’s gut. Then the whole thing is roasted until the skin is crisp and the fish cooked through. Because I had such a big piece of bass and because nothing is worse than overcooked fish, I erred on the side of caution and the fish, which I thought would cook in 20 minutes took closer to 40 minutes. Fortunately, one of our dinner guests is not only a doctor of medicine but apparently a doctor of fish cooking as well. He checked doneness of the fish by opening up the scores all the way to the bone. Finally, the fish was white all the way down and ready to serve. It was magnificent, if I do say so myself. We
served this with very simple sides: A Caprese Tomato Salad with Buffalo Mozzarella and Corn off the Cob with Shiitake Mushrooms, Shallots and a hit of Red Pepper. And for dessert, those individual Pavlovas I raved about earlier in the week. Here is the recipe:
|Corn off the Cobb with Shiitake Mushrooms and Shallots|