Fish returns to rock bay


EARLY AMERICANS PRIZED it above Atlantic salmon, and Capt. John Smith marveled at its taste and abundance in the Chesapeake Bay. But in recent years rockfish has been scarce if not absent along the East Coast.

After a moratorium of five years, sport fishing resumes at 5 p.m. Friday. The recreational season will continue for five weeks, followed by the commercial fishing season. Rockfish, which on Friday will also be a legal buy in local markets, is prized for its firm texture, white flesh and mild flavor. Earlier this year, rockfish raised on fish farms were allowed on the market.

Sportsfishermen prefer big fish, the bigger the better, but with rock those over ten or 12 pounds tend to become coarse and flakey. The minimum-size catch in the bay will be 18 inches. That figures out to about a three-pound rock, which is ideal. Maximum size allowed will be 36 inches, or about 25 pounds. That's ideal for steaks, but has poorer flavor and texture for use in other dishes.

I will be among those fishing Friday, and if fortunate enough to catch a legal fish, I'll cook it the same way I did the last time, over five years ago. The following recipe -- credited to Gabriel's Restaurant by the Maryland Seafood Cookbook III -- is time consuming, but a fresh wild rock deserves the effort. We have waited long enough.

$ Stuffed Rockfish

8 8- to 10-ounce rockfish filets

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 teaspoon chopped shallots

6 fresh mushrooms, diced

8 ounces Maryland crab or lobster meat

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 teaspoon French mustard

1 teaspoon brandy

3 tablespoons sour cream

Sauce (recipe given below)

1 cup grated Swiss cheese

Wash and dry fish thoroughly; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Set aside. Melt butter in saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots and simmer three to four minutes. Add mushrooms and simmer five minutes more.

Chop lobster meat into small pieces (if using crab, remove cartilage) add to mushroom mix. Salt and pepper to taste. Simmer three to four minutes. Add wine, mustard and brandy, and simmer ten minutes over medium heat to blend flavors. Remove from heat and add sour cream. Let cool before stuffing.

Place four rock fillets in a single layer, skin side down, on a foil-lined shallow baking pan. Spoon mushroom mixture on each, then cover with remaining filets.. Bake at 350-degrees for 25 minutes until fish flakes with fork test. Remove fish, pour sauce over it and sprinkle with grated cheese. Place under broiler until cheese melts.

* Sauce for Stuffed Rock

1 cup cooked lobster or crab meat

1/2 cup melted butter

Salt and pepper to taste

4 tablespoons butter, divided

1/2 cup flour

2 cups milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons yellow onion, minced

Pinch of dried thyme

Pinch of nutmeg

1/4 bay leaf

1/3 cup heavy cream

Pinch of cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon brandy

Finely grind one cup lobster or crab, mix with one-half cup melted butter and blend at high speed. Pour through fine sieve and cool. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Chill until firm, about one hour. This is known as lobster or crab butter. You will need two tablespoons of this mixture to complete the sauce. The rest can be served at a latter date or spread on crackers and served as an appetizer.

Melt three tablespoons butter in double boiler over moderate heat. Blend in flour; slowly add milk and heat, stirring until thickened. Add salt and pepper and keep warm in double boiler over simmering water.

Over moderate heat, stir-fry onion in remaining one tablespoon of butter until onion is limp. Add to the sauce along with thyme, nutmeg and bay leaf. Cover and cook one hour over simmering water. Beat now and then with a whisk and scrape bottom and sides with a rubber spatula. Strain sauce.

Return sauce to pan and place over low heat. Mix in heavy cream and keep warm. Add cayenne pepper and brandy. Remove from heat and add two tablespoons lobster or crab butter.

If you're not convinced rock is worth all that effort, here is a simple approach from Carole Walters of Bozman. Her husband Keith included this recipe in his new book "Chesapeake Stripers."

$ Rockfish Fillets with Stuffing

1/4 cup chopped celery

2 tablespoons chopped onion

1 tablespoon chopped green pepper

1/4 cup tub margarine

1 pinch of garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1/4 teaspoon ground sage

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

2 cups soft bread cubes

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 pounds fillets, skinned

Red and green pepper, chopped for garnish, optional

Saute celery, onion and green pepper in margarine. Add seasonings. Pour vegetables over bread cubes and toss lightly. Sprinkle lemon juice over fillets. Place half of the fillets in bottom of lightly oiled baking dish, top with bread mixture, then rest of fillets. Garnish with red and green pepper. Bake in 350-degree over for 30 minutes until done.

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