Just say rockfish to a Marylander and the typical reaction is comparable to talking to a Floridian about Key lime pie or a San Franciscan about Dungeness crab. Pride. Ecstasy. Loyalty.
No doubt about it. These are the region- al foods close enough to the roots of culinary heritage that they take on almost mystical qualities.
Recently rockfish took on the added aura of a forbidden fruit because we haven't been able to get the real thing from the Chesapeake Bay since January 1985, when the state imposed a moratorium because of overfishing. A farm-raised rockfish has been available, but purists complained that it was expensive, too mushy in texture and not the equal to wild rock in flavor.
But now the ban has been lifted, and rockfish lovers are heading for their saute pans and ovens. Starting last week, commercial fisherman can use a drift net to catch rockfish until Jan. 31 or a total limit of 151 tons is reached, whichever occurs earlier. Prices at local seafood markets are ranging from $3.75 a pound to $4 a pound for the whole fish (typically 5 to 12 pounds) and about $7.95 to $8 for the fillets.
But what about the hot issue of seafood contamination? The most recent study done by the Maryland Department of the Environment did not find any dangerous levels of contaminants in the main stem of the bay, according to spokesman Michael Sullivan.
"Rockfish aren't the kind of fish that we are overly concerned with accumulating toxins," he said. "The problem is mainly with bottom dwellers and bottom feeders. Rockfish are migratory, and we are more concerned about fish that stay in one place and are more susceptible to pollution."
Call them rockfish, wild rock, stripers or striped bass. Whatever you call them, their fans say they are the best fish in the bay, according to Noreen Eberly, seafood marketing specialist with the Maryland Office of Seafood Marketing.
"I came to Baltimore open-minded," added Dr. William Macon, a surgeon who came to Baltimore in 1977. "Rockfish is not a religion to me. It's an excellent fish, one of the best.
But you don't have to live near a Beltway to love rock. One of the biggest fans is Shirley King, a New Yorker born in London and LTC author of the recently published "Fish: The Basics" (Simon & Schuster, $24.95).
Thrilled to learn that wild rockfish was once again available, she described it as having a white, flaky flesh that is strong in taste, but not fishy. The farm-raised hybrid -- a combination of white bass and striped bass -- just wasn't comparable in her eyes.
"Sometimes the flesh of this hybrid tastes a bit muddy," she said. "I don't think it resembles rockfish as far as the flesh goes."
The wild rockfish has a firm flesh that goes well with strong flavors such as saffron, fennel, olive oil, tomatoes, white wine, garlic and Asian flavors such as soy sauce. And they are good candidates for cooking whole because they have simple bone structures that can be lifted off easily. In fact, old Maryland cookbooks feature recipes for rockfish stuffed with onion, bacon and minced parsley with lemon for garnish.
If you are shopping for the whole fish, the experts suggest you look for the traditional signs of a fresh fish -- bright unsunken eyes, red-colored gill rakers and a firm body that will not indent when pressed with your fingers. But the fish should also be silvery and sparkling in appearance. The longer a rockfish is out of the water, the more reddish the flesh will become until it turns a dull red-black.
Although old-timers and cookbook author King prefer serving the rockfish whole, restaurant chefs and caterers prefer to use the fillets and top them with flavorful sauces.
For example, Harold Marmelstein, executive chef of the Polo Grill, offers a wild rockfish on the winter menu ($17.95) that is sauteed with the skin on and served with a ratatouille, bay shrimp and a sweet red pepper vinaigrette. Although Chef Marmelstein is new to the Chesapeake area, he is familiar with rockfish -- a fish he knew as striped bass in the nine years he worked in Atlanta.
"We love to cook it with the skin on, especially the wild rock," he said.
His sauce, much too time-consuming for the home cook on the go, starts with a buerre blanc. He accents the white sauce with a red pepper puree made by sweating two seedless red peppers with a clove of garlic and a medium shallot. He adds a cup of white wine and a cup of fish stock, brings the mixture to a boil, covers and cooks slowly until the skin comes off the pepper. To make the vinaigrette, he takes 4 ounces of buerre blanc, 2 tablespoons of the red pepper puree and 1 teaspoon of sherry vinegar. The dish is served with the fillet in the middle surrounded by the ratatouille, shrimp and the red pepper vinaigrette.