AT THE MENTION of the Chesapeake Bay, the gourmet's fantasies conjure chilled oysters on the half shell; a thick, spicy and hot oyster stew; mounds of highly seasoned steamed crabs; or a delicately flavored crab imperial.
All are delightful, but aren't we forgetting something? What about the finfish of the Chesapeake?
The best of them all is the rockfish, which is better known elsewhere by its proper name, striped bass. But let's not snub sea trout, bluefish, flounder and the perches, both white and yellow.
In the Chesapeake, all are taken commercially, but hook-and-line catches equal or exceed the net hauls. A Maryland Department of Natural Resources survey indicated that 1 million anglers wet a line at least once in the Chesapeake annually, and though there is great emphasis on catch and release, most fish to put fish on the table.
And what can beat a fresh fish from the Chesapeake Bay?
* Rockfish. Size (they grow to 50 pounds and more), and the firm, delicately flavored, white flesh of the rockfish -- no relative of the West Coast's rockfish -- makes it the favorite of the Chesapeake region.
However, rock are in trouble. Their diminishing numbers along the East Coast brought drastic catch and season limits, but a limited commercial fishery is now under way, and Oct. 9 marks the opener of the rockfish season for sportsfishing fans. The season lasts about one month long.
Fish farm operations in Maryland and elsewhere have tried to duplicate the rockfish in ponds, and are quite successful in quantity, growth and all other aspects including profit -- ah, but with the exception of taste. Nothing can beat the flavor of the wild variety.
Like anything else, fish are what they eat. On fish farms they gorge on dried pellets packed with protein and other healthy stuff, all of which is alien to their wild counterparts. Small anchovies and other bait fishes, mussels, crabs, worms and other aquatic life -- some of which is best not mentioned in a food column -- make up their menu in the wild. And the 3,327-square-mile Chesapeake offers them a continuous smorgasbord.
The rockfish offers flesh as white and firm (though it becomes a bit flaky or coarse upon reaching 10 pounds or more) as a cod and has a delicate flavor that is truly fish, yet not fishy -- there is a difference. The skeletal arrangement is such that on the table they pose no problem with bones.
What's your favorite way of cooking a fish? A rockfish fits the bill. Fried, poached, baked, microwaved, boiled, deep-fried, broiled, grilled outdoors, smoked -- you decide. Choose a rock of 1 to 8 pounds, preferably one from the Chesapeake, the original home of 80 percent or more of those on the East Coast. It might be caught elsewhere, but chances are it hatched out hereabout.
I prefer rockfish with a little salt and pepper and maybe a little butter; it needs no other spices.
* The sea trout, also known as weakfish or by its colorful Indian name squeateague, has sweet, white and lean flesh not as firm as that of a rockfish. All fish should be iced immediately upon the catch, and kept thoroughly chilled or frozen thereafter, but quick chilling is important with the sea trout to avoid a fishy flavor.
* Bluefish have an image problem, part of which can be attributed to its abundance. Many place value on difficulty to come by and cost at the market, and the blue is not near the top of either list. To avoid oily or fatty taste in its not-so-white flesh, a blue must not only be chilled promptly but also cleaned.
The best size for excellent taste is 1 to 2 pounds; over that, marinate the fish in the refrigerator for six hours or more in salt and fresh lemon to avoid a fishy taste. With all except small ones, avoid frying as with most fatty fish.
* What new can be said about the flounder? Fine, sweet taste, versatile in preparation, universally known and cooked, among the best eating fish anywhere.
* The yellow perch is considered more a fish of the bay's tributaries than its open waters, while its white counterpart is caught in both.
Go to an Eastern Shore fish fry, and you will notice the locals pluck white perch from the tray before rockfish. That tell you something about the taste of their firm white flesh? The only trouble is a 1-pounder is considered large, and there are more bones to contend with. They are best when fried.
Overlook the size of the yellow perch, and it could be the best of all. Difficult to scale and with more bones than the white perch, its flesh is sweeter and more firm than any of the others we have covered. It can't be beat when pan- or deep-fried.