Rockfish never looked so good as it did in a sea of salsa

HAPPY EATER

September 28, 1994|By ROB KASPER

The other night I grilled a Maryland rockfish and covered it with salsa. The dish was quite good, but it broke tradition.

Back in the days when wild rockfish, or striped bass, were scarce, I was afraid to try new ways to cook it. So year after year, I simply brushed the fish with a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice and a pinch of salt, rolled it in bread crumbs, and put it under a broiler until the meat got flaky.

This traditional treatment delivered a wonderful, slightly sweet flavor. But I got bored with it. I was afraid of trying anything new because the fish was hard to get.

Recently, however, the bay has been swimming with adult rockfish. The state of Maryland reported recently that there are record numbers of teen-age rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay, meaning the future supply of the fish looks good.

All this good news about a surfeit of rockfish put me in a daring mood. So I ended up grilling in the Maryland tradition, then putting salsa on it.

Overall the results were good. The salsa was terrific, full of fresh tomatoes, cilantro and toasted cumin seed.

I wasn't sure what effect, if any, the charcoal fire had on the flavor of the fish. But I was proud that I was able to flip the fish on the grill without the skin falling apart. This has been a problem for me in the past, but this time I put the fish on a cake rack and set the rack on the grill. When it was time to flip the fish, I put on insulated mittens and flipped the fish from one cake rack to another.

My walk on the wild side of rockfish cooking began on Saturday. The fall rockfish season had opened and it seemed as if every amateur angler in town had gone fishing. I was feeling sorry for myself for missing out on the local delicacy. As I drove past the Lexington Market, I remembered that I didn't have to bounce around in a boat to get a rockfish. I could land one in a fish market.

That is what I did, I snared a rockfish in the Lexington Market. I found that this year's model of wild rockfish came equipped with a label. The label, attached to the fish's mouth, told me the fish's social history. It told me where it was netted, when it was caught. It might have even told me about the fish's family life. I didn't look at the fine print.

When I got home I tried to pass the fish off to neighbors and friends as one I had reeled in after a long struggle. No one #F bought my fish story, especially not a visiting teen-ager who had just returned from an early morning rockfish expedition. Scoffing at my fish, he reported that he, his father, his grandfather, even his little brother had caught bigger rockfish than the one I held in my hand.

Chastened, I carried my store-bought fish back to the kitchen and began to look for new ways to cook it. I found promising recipes in two new cookbooks "Big Flavors of the Hot Sun," by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby (Morrow, $28) and "Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking," by Mark Bittman (Macmillan, $28).

Many natives of Maryland have told me that the best way to cook rockfish is to fry it. A recipe in Bittman's book caught my eye. It called for frying floured fillets of rockfish in peanut oil, then serving them with a spicy sauce made of ginger, sherry, soy and garlic.

I wanted to try it, but I did not have a drop of sherry in the house.

So I switched to the grilled rockfish with sweet tomato salsa, found in the Schlesinger-Willoughby book. The dish changed the way I think about the rockfish. Now that I have seen it swimming in salsa, I don't know if I can ever go back to just rolling it in bread crumbs.

Grilled Striped Bass With Sweet Tomato Salsa

Serves 4

2 ripe baseball-size tomatoes

1 small red onion, diced

1/4 cup lime juice

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds

4 8-ounce striped bass fillets or whole 1- to 2-pound fish

2 tablespoons oil

salt and pepper to taste

In medium bowl, combine first six ingredients, mix well, cover and refrigerate until fish is done. Sprinkle fish with salt and pepper; grill over medium fire, flipping once. Fish is done when flesh is opaque throughout. Remove from grill and serve with salsa.

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