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Turning Dad's catch of the day into flavorful dish

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If the man of your house dreams of spending Father's Day with a fishing rod in hand, you may have to put the steaks back in the freezer Sunday night.

Consider his luck as the opportunity to try fish you might not usually find on a restaurant menu or in the seafood case: freshwater perch, bluegill, croaker and wild trout.

The first step to cooking them (after they're cleaned, of course) is to recognize many of these fish are more delicate in taste and texture than the salmon or tuna you may be accustomed to throwing on the grill.

"You have to go with delicate flavoring," says Darin Linebaugh, chef at Helen's Garden in Canton, which frequently features trout and catfish on the menu.

His tastes tend toward two extremes -- light seasoning, such as salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon, or a blackening, as in his recipe for blackened trout. "Blackening seems to complement the delicate flavors," he says.

While grilling is a great way to prepare trout or catfish, it's a good idea to cook the fish over foil so it doesn't fall apart on the grate, Linebaugh says.

Small fish, such as yellow perch and bluegill, don't lend themselves to grilling, but they still can be served up in style, says chef John Shields of Gertrude's restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art. "A lot of local fishermen end up with a lot of these little fish," Shields says.

Four-inch bluegills may not do much for the ego, but they still can make a flavorful meal.

"I like the small fish," Shields says. "They have a really nice flavor."

A simple way of preparing them is to fry them in a cornmeal-and-flour batter with a touch of creole sauce, he says.

Another recipe, which he learned from Chesapeake Bay fisherman Michael Paul Dahl and features in his Chesapeake Bay Cooking cookbook, calls for crab and Old Bay seasoning to create fish sticks from small fish.

If your guy is headed to the Chesapeake Bay, he may come back with croaker. Betty Duty, administrator of the Maryland Watermen's Association, says she likes cooking the croaker that get caught in her husband's crab pots. An easy recipe is to dip them in an egg bath and then flour and cornmeal, add a little salt and pepper and fry them in butter, she says.

Another easy way is to cut the fillets into pieces and put them in a corn-and-potato chowder.

"I think the croaker is highly underrated," she says.

Capt. Jim Brincefield a charter boat captain in Deale, likes croaker so much that he is often called Capt. Croakerhead.

"We didn't have any croakers here for a while," says Brincefield. "They came back in the 1990s. ... They are fun to catch."

Brincefield said he prefers their flavor to that of the bluefish, which he considers too gamy.

"I like a fish in the middle," he says. "I like a good flavor, but I don't like to be overpowered by it."

He's been working on a recipe that uses his wife's turkey stuffing and puts it inside the croaker. "I've been tweaking it. It's pretty tweaked," he says.

Blackened Trout

Serves 4

4 ripe avocados, soft but not dented or mushy

1 tablespoon lime or lemon juice

4 cloves minced garlic

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil (divided use)

kosher salt, ground black pepper and ground cumin to taste

2 heads of romaine lettuce

four 8-ounce fillets deboned trout

1 tablespoon prepared blackening seasoning

cooking spray

Preheat grill to medium heat. Peel and roughly chop avocados. Toss avocados with lime juice, garlic, mustard and 1/2 cup of olive oil. Add salt, pepper and cumin to taste; refrigerate until use.

Cut romaine into halves and drizzle halves with remaining olive oil. Grill romaine 3 minutes per side, remove from grill and keep warm until you're ready to serve.

Lightly dust flesh side of trout with blackening mix, then lightly spray flesh side of fish with cooking spray. Grill trout flesh-side down for 3 minutes, flip, then grill skin-side down for 3 minutes. Place trout over romaine half; top each with avocado mix.

- Chef Darin Linebaugh of Helen's Garden

Per serving: 1,058 calories; 52 grams protein; 88 grams fat; 13 grams saturated fat; 19 grams carbohydrate; 12 grams fiber; 129 milligrams cholesterol; 297 milligrams sodium

Capt. Jim's Stuffed Croaker

Serves 4

3 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

6 fresh croakers, 2 to 3 pounds each

cooking spray

1/4 stick butter (divided use)

1 teaspoon JO crab spice or Old Bay crab spice

STUFFING:

1 stick butter

3 cups fresh chopped onion

2 cups fresh chopped celery

2 cups fresh chopped mushrooms

1 cup fresh chopped green peppers

2 cloves fresh garlic, minced real fine

4 fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped into small pieces

6 cups soft bread crumbs (not croutons)

1 teaspoon salt

Sprinkle salt and pepper inside and outside of fish. Place in baking dish sprayed with cooking spray. Melt the butter and brush half of it onto the fish inside and outside.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and bake fish for about 15 minutes. While you are baking the fish, make the stuffing.

Melt butter in saute pan, add remaining ingredients, stir and cook until vegetables are tender (about 15 minutes).

Stuff the fish with the vegetable stuffing. Use the rest of the melted butter to baste the fish again. Bake another 15 minutes or until you can flake the fish meat with a fork (some ovens may take up to 30 minutes).

- Capt. Jim Brincefield

Per serving: 1,050 calories; 98 grams protein; 47 grams fat; 23 grams saturated fat; 58 grams carbohydrate; 8 grams fiber; 375 milligrams cholesterol; 3,336 milligrams sodium

Mr. Paul's Fish Sticks

Serves 6 to 8

1 egg

1 heaping tablespoon mayonnaise

1 tablespoon dry mustard

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1 teaspoon dried tarragon

3 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 pound back fin or claw crabmeat, picked over

1 1/2 pounds of fish fillets, such as bluegill, crappie, flounder or any small whitefish fillets, cut into 3-inch-by-1-inch strips

2 cups Bisquick

vegetable oil for frying (2 to 3 cups, depending on size of skillet)

lemon wedges for garnish

Combine the egg, mayonnaise, mustard, salt, pepper, cayenne, tarragon and parsley in a bowl. Mix well. Place the crabmeat in a large mixing bowl and pour the egg mixture over the top. Mix gently, taking care not to break up the lumps of crabmeat.

Line a baking sheet with wax paper. Arrange the fish fillets on the baking sheet. Mound some of the crab mixture evenly on top of each fillet. It should be about 1/4 inch high. Place the baking sheet in the freezer until the fish-and-crab mixture is stiff, about 45 minutes.

Make a thin tempuralike batter out of the Bisquick and 1 3/4 cups ice water. Pour oil into a very heavy skillet until it reaches a depth of about 1 inch and heat until very hot. Fry, turning each fillet once, until golden-brown, 2 to 3 minutes on each side.

Remove the fillets to paper towels to drain. If all the fillets do not fit into the skillet at once, hold the cooked fillets in a warm oven while the others are being fried.

Serve hot with lemon wedges.

- "Chesapeake Bay Cooking With John Shields" (Broadway Books, 1998)

Per serving (based on 8 servings): 450 calories; 16 grams protein; 36 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 19 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber; 70 milligrams cholesterol; 1,188 milligrams sodium

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