Stuck between a rockfish and a hard cleaning task

January 08, 2003|By Rob Kasper

A BIG ROCKFISH was sitting in my back yard in an ice chest, and I had a few hours of spare time.

So on a cold Maryland morning, I became reacquainted with the rigors of cleaning a striped bass, possibly the best tasting fish in these parts.

Fish-cleaning is a messy procedure, especially if the knives and knife-wielders are none too sharp. The first thing I did was put three knives through a grinder to give them a keen edge.

But there was little I could do to sharpen my fish-cleaning skills, which were never cutting edge. Taking on a big rockfish was different from cleaning the favorite fish of my Midwestern youth, the catfish. Armed with needle-nose pliers and a paring knife, I had skinned plenty of 12- inch catfish as a kid. I had cleaned rockfish before, but that had been several years ago. Moreover, my last rockfish-cleaning bout had been in the springtime, when the backyard winds were friendly, not frightful.

This time, I wrapped myself in plenty of thick, old clothes, a stocking cap and rubber gloves and traipsed out to a table in the back yard to wrestle with the rockfish.

The fish was a beauty, one of the bounty of striped bass that had been pulled from the mouth of the Delaware Bay a few days before by Bo Weisheit and his sons, Ben and James. My sons and I had been invited to go along on the fishing trip, but we couldn't make the dawn departure. Later, Bo told me that the boat, The Grisly, had shoved off at about 7:40 a.m. and motored out to the spot where the bay meets the Atlantic, and he and his sons had begun drift fishing with live eels as bait. By 10 o'clock they had their limit of two fish -- one under 28 inches one over 28 inches -- per fisherman.

The following morning, part of the bounty of their venture, the big striper, arrived in my back yard in an ice chest, a holiday present that soon would become a holiday meal.

When Bo had asked if I wanted a whole fish or a fillet, I had told him I wanted a whole fish. I had envisioned cooking a 16-inch fish with the head on, in the oven for a toothsome winter supper. However, the fish that appeared in the back yard was about 32 inches long, more fish than I anticipated. I would have to cut it in two sections just to get it in the oven.

I set to work. There was a lot of slipping and sliding, along with some swearing and sawing. I did it the hard way. I scaled the fish, removed its innards, and then decided that instead of keeping the fish whole or cutting it into steaks, I would take the fillet route.

A skilled fish handler, like the ones working in Baltimore markets, would have saved several steps by simply filleting the fish with the scales still on, then, in a slick move practiced by natives of the mid-Atlantic, remove the skin from the fillet. That, I later learned, is what Bo did with some of his catch. But this skin-removing touch does not come naturally to us catfish cleaners.

What emerged from the backyard effort were two very thick, very long fillets and a very tired fish cleaner.

That night, one of the fillets was sprinkled with a 1/4 cup olive oil, 2 teaspoons salt and 2 tablespoons lemon juice and put, with the skin side up, under a hot broiler for about 12 minutes. Next I flipped the fillet -- no small task -- tossed on about 3/4 cup of bread crumbs, and put the fish back under the broiler for about 10 minutes, until the bread crumbs threatened to turn black and a fork easily pierced the flesh of the fish.

The sweet flavor of the striped bass was remarkable. It was topped only by the moist, dense texture of truly fresh fish. One fillet fed six hungry adults.

The broiled fish was so good that it almost made me forget that while catching and eating rockfish is one of the delights of living here, cleaning them is not.

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