FISH TASTES BETTER when the weather turns colder. Maybe this happens because the flavor of the fish improves if it has been swimming in very cold waters. Or maybe it is because on a cold night, a sizzling platter of fish seems especially appealing to a chilly eater.
Regardless of whose cold flesh is responsible, that of the fish or that of the eater, a baked fish makes a pleasing winter supper.
A good fish supper begins, of course, earlier in the day with a trip to a fish market. Last Saturday, when the snow crunched under our feet and the air was so sharp it made our cheeks sting, my family and I piled in our station wagon and headed to the Lexington Market in downtown Baltimore. Our mission was twofold: to fetch a fish and to buy a warm lunch.
One of the benefits of living in the Baltimore area is that its indoor markets -- Lexington, Cross Street, Broadway, Hollins, Belair, Northeast and Lafayette -- are full of merchants selling both fresh seafood and hot carry-out dishes. For me this dual attraction of cold fish and hot lunch makes "going to market" an ideal way to while away part of a winter afternoon.
Our group had to make several stops in the market to satisfy our various appetites. A couple of us got the combination meat and bean burrito, with extra hot sauce, at Pancho's stand. Then there was a stop at Park's Fried Chicken stand for one order of wings and an order of thighs, both fried in bubbling oil. My wife was tempted by the chicken livers, a dish we will never let her fix at home, but ended up with a hot pastrami sandwich from the Mary Mervis counter, and a bag of potato chips from the Utz's counter.
The fish, a handsome 3-pound rockfish or striped bass, came from Faidley's Seafood. This was a wild, or "God-made" rockfish, as opposed to the farm-raised variety. Later while walking through the market, I noticed there were plenty of wild rockfish for sale at various fish stands in the market.
How people in Baltimore choose their fish merchant is a fascinating subject to me. Some seem to chose a merchant based on the price of the fish. Some seem to base the decision on the location of the fish stand, that is on how far they have to carry the fish home.
I hop around from city market to city market and make my fish purchases based on geographic loyalty. At the Lexington Market for instance, I buy fish from Bill Devine, the crusty proprietor of Faidley's, because he and I hail from that stronghold of seafood connoisseurs -- Kansas. I'm not sure if it is true that all the world's big seafood eaters grew up in the Midwest. But I do know that after years of eating frozen fish covered in batter, I moved out here and got a new understanding of why so many people are crammed into the East Coast cities. They want to be near the good fish markets.
We brought the rockfish home from the market and cooked it that night using a recipe that is one of our favorites, Pesce ai ferri alla moda dell'Adriatico . Loosely translated that means fish broiled the Adriatic way. It comes from Marcella Hazan's 1978 book, "The Classic Italian Cookbook." Mrs. Hazan hails from Italy, near Bologna. Even though she missed growing up in the Midwest, or buying seafood in Baltimore, she too is a major fan of fresh fish.
When cooking fish, she advocates using fresh ingredients, and a very hot fire.
Over the years, we must have made her "pesce ai ferri alla moda dell'Adriatico" about two dozen times.
But it never came out better than it did the other night. Why the same recipe tastes better one time than another is a question cooks often debate. But in this case the answer was clear. The fish tasted better because the weather was colder.
Fish broiled the Adriatic way
3 pound fish, whole with head on
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
6 tablespoons fine, dry, unflavored bread crumbs
Have whole fish cleaned, and scaled. Wash it in cold water, and dry thoroughly on paper towels.
Salt fish on both sides, put it on platter, add the olive oil and lemon juice. Turn fish two or three times, coating it well. Add the bread crumbs, turning fish to coat both sides. Marinate for 1 to 2 hours at room temperature.
Heat oven broiler to maximum at least 15 minutes before cooking.
Put fish in oven-proof dish and place 4 or 5 inches away from the source of the heat. Broil on both sides until done. (Cooking times vary greatly, but a 3-pound striped bass should be done in about 20-25 minutes. The flesh should come away easily from the bone and show no traces of raw, pink color.) Baste the fish occasionally with lemon juice and olive oil while it broils. Serving piping hot.
(From "The Classic Italian Cookbook" by Marcella Hazan, Knopf, 1978.)
Pub Date: 1/15/97