Like most cooks and food lovers, I’ve been eagerly anticipating spring’s bounty. Asparagus, morel mushrooms, ramps and rhubarb all return to markets and my dinner table. So, too, does the East Coast’s favorite sport fish, striped bass.
Found in ocean, rivers and estuaries from Canada to Louisiana, this long, silver, horizontally striped fish has been an American favorite since colonial times. In those days the fish could grow as long as 6 feet and weigh more than 100 pounds. In addition to being a big catch, it was a plentiful one. So great were its numbers that early settlers used striped bass for fertilizer as well as for food.
Unfortunately, popularity does not always translate into prosperity. By enriching their crops with striped bass, the colonists seriously depleted the striped bass population. In 1639, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had to ban this mulching practice to preserve the dwindling fish supply.
Centuries later, in the 1980s, overfishing brought another severe decline. Today, though, thanks to severe fishing restrictions and their strict management, this fish has largely rebounded. Although you won’t see those 100 pounders in markets — they primarily carry small, farmed striped bass — you can enjoy this fish from the wild once again.
Also called striper, greenhead and, in the Chesapeake Bay area, rockfish, striped bass is renowned for its spunky nature. In fact, its scrappiness and the resulting challenge of the catch are part of its great allure.
“This is not a fish for beginners or the faint of heart. It’s a very fast, hard fighting fish, a worthy opponent and delicious,” retired vintner and avid angler Frank Wilmer says. A native of southeastern Pennsylvania, Wilmer reels in striped bass off the surf on Long Beach Island, New Jersey.
With a feisty spirit comes a voracious appetite. This fish consumes plankton, shrimp, clams, crabs, eels and medium-sized fish such as menhaden. Its diverse diet undoubtedly contributes to its unique, sweet flavor and firm, moderately fat, moist flesh.
Its appealing texture and taste have earned striped bass many fans. Valley Forge Audubon naturalist Vince Smith considers it one of the best tasting fish. “I think of it as a cross between bluefish and weakfish. It has a dark, fat layer like bluefish, but not the heavy taste,” Smith says.
Striped bass any way you like it
What makes striped bass such a boon to fishermen and cooks is its versatility. After catching and cleaning it, you can prepare it in myriad ways.
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For Smith, grilling is the best method. “I love to cook it on the grill with just a little salt. Leave it skin side down, then flip to finish,” he says.
Frank Wilmer concurs. “My buddies and I prepare striped bass by scaling them, slicing them laterally about 4-5 times on each side, sprinkling them with jerk seasoning and grilling them whole until well done. Never had fish done any better,” he says.
In addition to being grilled, its firm, oily flesh responds beautifully to baking, braising, broiling, deep- and pan-frying, poaching, roasting, sautéing, searing and steaming. The luscious, juicy meat goes well with ingredients such as artichoke, garlic, parsley, potatoes, scallions, shallots, thyme, tomatoes, white wine vinegar and port wine.
Because this fish possesses such a rich, lovely flavor, I tend to keep the preparations simple and the extra ingredients to a minimum. If I’m fortunate enough to have a whole striper, I stuff it with shallots or pearl onions, slices of lemon or orange and fresh thyme. I then roast it for 20 minutes or until done. Fillets I usually grill, sauté, sear or pan-fry. I then splash lemon juice, Tabasco or soy sauce on top and serve them alongside fresh cauliflower, corn, beets or greens.
Along with its vivaciousness, taste and versatility, striped bass has sustainability on its side. Hook-and-line caught striped bass from the U.S. Atlantic is considered a “best choice” by Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. The milder, smaller, farmed striped bass also receives this coveted rating.
Among my angler friends optimism remains high for a good striped bass season. I hope they’re correct. For cooks like me who love the full-bodied flavor of the wild fish but rely upon others to catch it, it would be quite disappointing if their predictions turn out to be just another fish tale.
Pan-Seared Striped Bass with Lime-Basil Butter
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
Juice of ½ lime
Grated zest of 1 lime
1½ tablespoons fresh basil, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 (4- to 6-ounce) striped bass fillets
Ground black pepper
1. In a small bowl, mix together the butter, juice, zest and basil. Set aside.
2. In a large, nonstick pan, heat the olive oil on medium-high heat. Season the striped bass fillets with salt and black pepper to taste.
3. Once the oil has heated, place the fillets in the pan and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the flesh has browned slightly. Turn the fillets over and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, until the other side has browned and the center has turned opaque. During the last 30 seconds of cooking, dot the tops of the fillets with equal amounts of lime-basil butter. Remove the fillets from the pan and serve immediately.
Top photo: Pan-seared striped bass with lime-basil butter Credit: Kathy Hunt