Come Knockin’ if this Fish’s a Rockin’

Rockfish rules in coastal virginia cuisine

Photo by Edwin Remsberg from the book Dishing Up Virginia

One of Coastal Virginia’s most remarkable times of the year, culinarily, comes in the winter. Although rockfish, also known as striped bass, can be found in other seasons, this time of year they are plentiful as the stock migrate through the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay just off Cape Henry.

Rockfish has long had a fanciful history in the region. Captain John Smith, in his descriptive writing style, noted that in the early 17th century, the fish was so plentiful in the Bay that one could walk across the water on their backs.

So enjoyed was rockfish that one of the first conservations statutes in the New World was written in 1639 to protect the species.

It is easy to see why rockfish is so popular – the white, flaky meat has a mild flavor and adapts to many preparation methods and cooking styles.

Rockfish can easily be purchased for cooking at home, too. When shopping for rockfish in market, look for flesh that is firm – slightly press on the fish, and the meat should not easily yield; look for bright, clear eyes; there should be a clean, sea-like briny aroma; the overall appearance should be pleasant.

If you want to prepare a rockfish dish, it is easy; there are some great fish markets across Coastal Virginia offering fresh-from-the-water catches.

Three great Coastal Virginia flavors come together in this fish dish: beautiful rockfish, so plentiful in our waters from late autumn through early spring, are perfectly pan seared and served atop a slice of Virginia country ham and topped with a generous serving of pesto made with the large Virginia-type peanut.

All of the three main ingredients come from the Coastal Virginia foodshed, and showcase the rich, diverse bounty of the region.

(Note: This season’s rockfish catch seems to be lower than previous years, which may result in higher retail prices. We still find this a delicious fish, and one worth seeking out. – peh)

3 cups fresh basil leaves, stems removed and loosely packed
3/4 cup roasted, unsalted Virginia peanuts
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup freshly grated romano cheese
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

In a food processor or blender, add basil leaves and process until well chopped, scraping the bowl as necessary.
Add peanuts, garlic, parmesan, romano, red pepper flakes, salt and process until well chopped, scraping the bowl as necessary.
In a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice and olive oil and slowly drizzle in blender, processing until mixture is well combined, creamy and smooth.

4 Eight-ounce rockfish filets, skin on
8 slices Virginia country ham, cut thin
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
8 thin slices Virginia country ham

Prepare the rockfish filets by removing any bones and seasoning skin-free side with salt and pepper. Prepare a baking sheet by rubbing with a small amount of oil. Preheat oven to 375F. Heat a small amount of oil in a sauté pan over high heat and carefully place the rockfish, skin-side up, in the pan. Cook for about 3 minutes, until the flesh begins to brown. Remove filets from pan and place skin-side down on baking sheet. Roast in oven about 10 minutes, checking to make sure flesh is cooked but still moist.
Serve rockfish over two thin slices of country ham and top with pesto.
Yields 4 servings

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