When it comes to seafood, there's something amiss with the taste buds of many Americans. They go to extremes. They want their finfish and shellfish either too bland, or too spicy -- no in-between.
At the market, they fuss over the shrimp selection, then cook what they buy in such hot spices they miss out on the unique delicate flavor of the shellfish. Same with crabs; even costly Maine lobster ends up tasting more like butter than lobster.
Raw oysters and clams are saturated with horseradish sauce, often with excessive lemon to boot. Steamed oysters are drowned in vinegar; steamed clams in drawn butter. Scallops fall victim to rich cheesy sauces, and mussels get so much garlic you could substitute tofu and not know the difference.
It's the same with finfish. Too much Tabasco and other super hot sauces overwhelm fried fish; various soy sauces mask the flavor of stir-fried fish, and the assortment of "flavor enriching" additives used in baking and broiling dressed fish does injustice to the entree.
Conversely, there are those continually in the quest for blandness in seafood, especially finfish. Hence, the mushrooming popularity of aquaculture products.
Nothing wrong with fish from the fish farm mind you; nothing wrong that is if you're willing to settle for anything less than the very best. If you're bent on adding excessive spices and sauces it doesn't make much, if any, difference when the cooking is done. Use enough additives, and pen-reared fish can taste like their wild counterparts, whether they be salmon, catfish, trout or rockfish (striped bass) that are prepared in like fashion.
If you are what you eat, so is a fish -- and a fish raised on a bland diet of fast growth nutritional pellets instead of its natural food is a bland fish. This is not to suggest there is anything wrong with aquaculture fish, or that with a wild fish the fishy taste should be strong, but there should be an adequate hint of, let's call it "fishy-ness" in the dish. If not, why choose fish in the first place?
You want pork chops to taste like pork; prime rib to taste like beef, lamb to taste like lamb, so why not fish to taste like fish? Recently, a young lady told me that she leaves aquaculture fish on the kitchen counter overnight. The onset of a breakdown in freshness and texture gives it just enough of a fishy taste, she explained.
"Why not get the real thing in the first place?" I asked. "Because it's fishy," she responded. Maybe she should consider another market.
So what is all of this leading to? Saturday is the opening day of Maryland's trophy rockfish season, a season in which any rock must be of at least 36 inches. Many will average 20 pounds or more.
One of my favorite restaurants for seafood is Mario's in Ocean City, where seafood ends up tasting like seafood. So the other day I asked Mario's chief cook and bottle washer Vera Maiorana how she would prepare a wild rockfish to insure the best in rockfish flavor.
She obliged with the following recipe from chef George Howard
Mario's Baked Rockfish
10 pounds of rockfish (after dressing)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1/2 green pepper, chopped
1 16-ounce can tomatoes, crushed
1 tablespoon oregano
1 teaspoon whole thyme
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 cup water
Lay strips of bacon over rockfish after it has been salted and peppered and placed in baking pan. Mix remaining ingredients, then pour over and alongside the fish, and bake in pre-heated 350 to 375-degree oven for 45 minutes. You will enjoy the true flavor of rock -- with just a little extra added.
Another suggestion is an old favorite of mine. Salt and peper a dressed rockfish, then dot liberally with butter or margarine; sparingly add a bit of black seafood seasoning (red is too salty and spicy), then place in baking dish. Add enough bottled clam juice available at many markets to a depth of about one-half-inch in the pan, and bake in 350-degree oven 45 minutes to an hour. Baste a couple of times with juice while cooking. Add more juice if needed.