Wild one wins rock-y battle


January 09, 1991|By ROB KASPER

It was the hunk vs. the punk. The wild thing vs. the product of civilized living. It was no contest.

The forkfuls of the hunk of wild rockfish I ate for dinner on two nights were so much juicier, so much chunkier, so much more flavorful than its smaller farm-raised rockfish that I was a little embarrassed for pitting the two against each other.

Duty made me do it. This was the first chance I had to compare the wild rockfish, which has recently returned to Maryland seafood markets, with the new pond-raised rockfish, which showed up in the markets last year.

I went to Faidley's Seafood in the Lexington Market bought a farm-raised rockfish, for $4.95 a pound, and some fillets of wild rockfish, at about $7 a pound.

I took them home and treated them well. They both got candlelight, wine and a dip in olive oil.

The wild rock responded much better to this treatment than its farm-raised friend. The wild rock had rich flavor, great texture and glowing color. The farm-raised fish was mushy and a little muddy tasting.

I stretched the old rock-new rock taste test over two nights, or two suppers.

The first night was naked fish night. The idea was to put as little as possible between me and the flesh of the cooked fish.

Shortly after I arrived home with the fish, I cut a fillet off the farm-raised rock, put it in a pan and covered it with 1/2 cup of olive oil, 2 tablespoons lemon juice and sprinkled it with bread crumbs.

The wild rock got similar treatment. Then my wife popped both fillets under a broiler and cooked them until the flesh in the center of the fillets was done.

Doneness was determined by that fail-safe method, cheating. You pull the fish out of the oven, use a knife to make a small slice and peek. The smaller, farm-raised rock cooked in about 5 to 7 minutes, the wild rock fillet took about 10 to 15.

Since rockfish, an old friend, was returning to our house, the meal was a special occasion. The newspapers had been pushed off the table, candles had appeared and the kids had been fed and been ordered upstairs. We even had a salad, a fancy one made of mushrooms, sesame oil and sunflower seeds.

The piece of the wild rockfish virtually glowed in the candlelight. And when I prodded it with a knife, it broke into the fabled chunks, the kind that send chefs into ecstasy, the kind that look like another Chesapeake delicacy, pieces of backfin crab meat. Not only was it pretty, it tasted terrific.

As for the farm-raised rock, it was over-matched. Maybe I had a bad fish, but the flesh on this one wasn't firm, the color was dark and the flavor was more earthy than fishy.

On the second night, the two remaining fillets were cooked the same way, then cloaked in a sauce. The idea here was to see which fish behaved better with company.

My wife and I debated what kind of sauce should provide the company. I lobbied for my usual friends -- egg yolks and butter. I wanted hollandaise.

But my wife had spotted a ginger-and-butter sauce recipe in the cookbook, "Pacific Flavors" by Hugh Carpenter, that she wanted to try.

Since she was making the sauce, she won. In making the sauce, I later learned, she broke many of the recipe's rules. It was supposed to be served with salmon, not rockfish. It was supposed to have 2 tablespoons butter; ours didn't. And it was designed to use as a marinade, while we used it as a serving sauce.

Still, the sauce, made by combining 3 tablespoons dry sherry, 2 tablespoons light soy sauce and 1 tablespoon sesame oil, was very good.

And the wild rock took to the sauce better than its farm-raised friend. The wild rock swam with the flavor of the sauce, the farm-raised rock was drowned by it.

I enjoyed my taste test, but the superiority of wild rock presented me with a problem. Since the supply of wild rockfish is limited, I don't want to encourage overfishing. If that happens, we get no wild rockfish at all.

Moreover, I don't want to discourage fish farmers. Without them making money, we won't have the farm-raised rock to tide us eaters over when the wild rock isn't available.

I think the only answer is to pick a week or two in the winter and declare them wild rockfish weeks.

During this time the rockfish, the tasty fish of the Chesapeake Bay, could be celebrated. Tributes could be written to the fish. Poets could pen its praises. Maybe someone could even write a rockfish "rap." And for these two weeks -- and those two weeks only -- we could eat it.

After that it would be back to our normal lives, and average, pond-raised rockfish.

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