Long Island Larder

Miriam Ungerer | July 17, 1997

I wonder: Is it too late for me to take up fly-fishing? The sight of all those contented fishermen (maybe some of them are women; in fishing gear, who can tell?) casting in the late afternoon sun on Long Beach near my house makes me yearn to join them.

And when I see them hauling in striped bass, the queen of fish, or some handsome fluke, I yearn even more vigorously. But then I read a few sportfishing columns and realize that I probably will content myself with thumbing through my prized copy of McClane's New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia.

This time of year there are smooth black sea bass, fat, silvery porgies, and tiny flat butterfish, all wonderful choices for pan-frying whole, campfire style. You can sort of pretend you caught them yourself.

Fear Of Fish Bones

Freshwater rainbow trout and delicious, pink-fleshed Arctic char, though not local, of course, can be bought in local fish markets. In the three-pound range, they make wonderful suppers for two.

These tasty panfish make fine eating for grownups - people not afraid to tackle a whole fish, bones and all. Large chars, or the usually plentiful summer flounder called fluke hereabouts, are available in many weights and make an alluring presentation for a dinner party.

Fish cooked on the bone - this is also true of meat and poultry - has a lot more flavor, in my opinion, although I know that fear of fish bones lurks in the minds of a great many people, and fear of cooking it properly in the minds of even more.

No Longer Cheap

But the nutritional virtue of fish has been so widely touted in the past decade, demand has escalated its price astronomically. Whole fish are nearly always a much better buy than fillets, even after subtracting the weight lost in inedible parts.

Once the food of the poor, fish is now more expensive than beef, pork, chicken, or lamb! Restaurant menus in the places where I hang out (Key West, Fla., and eastern Long Island) are about 75 percent fish and customers order it eagerly - albeit mostly in steaks or fillets.

The Sticking Point

Admittedly, fish requires more concentration at the stove or grill than a steak or chop because it cooks very quickly, dries out easily, or is often suffocated in thick batter when deep-fried. Pan-frying small fish is probably the easiest, and working with fillets on a gas or charcoal grill is undoubtedly the trickiest.

Sticking is the one truly exasperating feature of sauteing or grilling fish, so special care must be taken to grease the grids well or use a non-stick or well-cured iron skillet with an adequate amount of oil or butter or a combination of the two.

Some delicious old Southern recipes call for bacon fat, but it should be fresh, strained, and clear of any brown bits.

It's a good idea to use it in 50-50 proportion with plain vegetable oil, such as peanut or canola, because the bacon flavor can overwhelm the subtler taste of the fish.

Microwaving

All fish, large or small, cooked by any method, is done, to most modern palates anyway, not when it "flakes," as so many cookbooks advise, but when the flesh is barely opaque, the juices barely coagulated.

Microwaving produces moist, delicate fish if carefully done; however, it somehow fails to develop deep flavor and needs some kind of sauce, or melted butter, at least.

Olive oil and garlic are good cooking agents for some of the darker, fattier fish, such as mackerel or bluefish, which are best cooked the day they are caught. But even small blues should be filleted because they can absorb PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls, through their skin, though that is unlikely if the fish are under two pounds.

Grilled Porgies With Parsley Sauce

The word "sauce" strikes terror into the hearts of some inexperienced cooks and even some fairly accomplished ones. But, no fear on this one! It's not even cooked. Anyone who can operate a food processor or a blender or even handle a knife can make this parsley sauce, and it adds immeasurably to the fish.

6 Tbsp. minced fresh parsley leaves (about one average bunch of curly parsley - don't even think about dried)

1 or 2 cloves garlic, peeled
6 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. coarse salt
Juice of half a lemon (note: zest first and reserve)
3 Tbsp. lukewarm water
Coarse ground pepper to taste

Rinse the parsley thoroughly, as it's usually sandy; shake it dry, and lay the sprigs on a long sheet of paper toweling. Roll it up and again shake it dry. Pick off the leaves, discarding the coarse stems. Put it in the food processor or chop it fine with a knife. Pulse the machine until parsley is chopped medium-fine. Add the garlic cloves, cut in quarters. Chop fine. Remove the zest of the lemon with one of those little zester doohickeys or grate off the rind using a medium-coarse hole on your grater. Keep it aside. Add the olive oil, salt, lemon juice, and water to the processor and pulse it a couple of times. Add the pepper and more salt if you think it needs it. Set aside the sauce.

When you clean the fish, try to make as small an opening as possible and trim out the gills carefully after you've scaled it. Or give these instructions to your fishmonger.

Grease The Grids

Rinse the fish, pat dry, and rub well with olive oil. Grease the grids well (Crisco or lard do a better job of this than oil) and when red hot, lay on the fish. Now comes the tricky part; it is nearly impossible to say how long, exactly, to grill anything. One must gauge how hot the fire or coals are, the distance the food is from them, whether it's a hot or cool day.

But here's a little guidance: flat fish that weigh about 11/2 lbs. dressed, should be done enough on the first side to turn after about four minutes.

Brush the fish with oil again. Use two thin metal spatulas and flip them over as quickly as possible. Don't slide them around or the skin may tear. If you have one of those big grill baskets with a top grid that clamps down to keep fish or vegetables (or a gang of hot dogs) in place, use that for ease in turning several fish at once.

Arrange the fish on a platter, covering the eyes with the lemon zest (or a thin slice of lemon if the zesting seems too much trouble - although the taste of the zest mixed with the parsley sauce is very good). Put a little sauce on each fish, the remainder in a sauceboat, and pass it at table. Simply boiled little Red Bliss or brown new potatoes are good plate companions.

Sea Bass Baked In Salt

Although a whole box of kosher salt is needed for this technique, the fish is not salty tasting. Rather, it is tender, delicate, and deliciously moist when the skin pulls away with the hardened carapace of baked salt, which is discarded. The principle is the same as for Chinese "Beggar's Chicken," which is encased in river mud for baking, then opened with a hammer. Salt is a lot easier to deal with, though. If you choose a big fish you will, obviously, need more salt to cover it. Do not have the fish scaled - it needs the extra protective coating.

One 2 to 3 lb. whole sea bass, gutted, gills removed

11/2 Tbsp. butter, chopped in bits
1/2 tsp. coarsely ground pepper
3 or 4 whole sprigs of fresh tarragon
2 lbs. (or more) coarse sea or kosher salt

A Bearnaise sauce lightened with whipped cream or a simple beurre blanc is a delightful addition for this simple preparation. Spoon on a little and pass the rest at table. Or it can also be wonderful with the flavor of a little fine, top-quality olive oil such as James Plaignol. It's a good idea to measure your baking pan before going to the fish market, or buy a couple of disposable foil pans to fit and be sure to support them with a heavy baking sheet. Put a layer of salt in the bottom.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Rinse the fish and pat it dry. Roll the butter bits in pepper and scatter them inside the fish, then place the tarragon sprigs inside as well. Lay the fish on the salt bed and completely cover it with more salt - enough so that you can no longer see the fish. Put in the center of the oven and bake for 20 minutes for a two-pound fish or 30 minutes for a three-pounder. Add five minutes for each pound above that.

Let the fish rest in its casing of salt for at least five minutes, then carefully remove the salt and skin. Cut along the center line of the fish and remove the top fillets, then, lifting from the tail, the entire skeleton of the fish along with its head. Lift up the bottom fillets, putting all on a warmed, buttered platter or individual plates. Serve at once.

Any whole fish can be roasted in this way, but adjust the times for the thickness of the fish, about 10 minutes per inch.