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Recipe: Whole Roasted Rockfish with Grape and Red Onion Salsa

There is something incredible about serving an entire fish at the table. First, by cooking it whole much of the moisture is retained giving you an incredibly tender and flavorful fillet. But I also like presenting fish whole as it allows us to better understand and celebrate that this fish is a magnificent creature that we are lucky to be able to eat!

Serves four
1 whole rockfish (wild striped bass), dressed
1 inch knob of ginger, peeled and grated
2 cloves garlic, grated
2 tablespoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 lemon juiced
1 cup red or green seedless grapes cut in half
1 small red onion, sliced very thin

For the fish, prepare a charcoal grill with all of the coals on one side. Mix the ginger garlic and salt with 2 tablespoons olive oil and rub all over the fish, including inside the belly cavity. When the coals have burned down to embers place the fish as far away from the flame as possible. If you wish, add a handful of soaked woodchips to the fire. Cover the grill and allow to cook for approximately 15 minutes per pound of fish. Depending on the size of the fish, you may need to add more charcoal to keep the fire going. (This is not an exact science as the fire temperature can vary. The best way to check doneness is to gently insert a knife along the backbone and lift up to expose the flesh. If cooked the flesh will be an even opaque color throughout.) To remove from the grill, it is easiest to lift the grill grate and having a partner hold a plate on top of the fish, then invert the whole grate so that the fish lays right onto the plate. Or use a partner with spatulas to carefully remove from the grill.

For the salsa, mix the sliced onion with the grapes, lemon juice and remaining olive oil. Season the mix generously with salt and toss to combine.

To serve, insert a spatula along the backbone of the fish and gently peel off sections of the fillet. This is best done in smaller, more manageable pieces. There is a good chance that there will be a few small bones in the fillets when done. Top the servings with a spoonful of the salsa and serve immediately.

About Striped Bass

Striped bass are an iconic species known up and down the East Coast as a favorite of both the commercial and recreational fishing industries. They are known by many colloquial names depending on the region—rockfish, stripers, green backs and more.

The stocks of this fish plummeted drastically in the 1970s and 1980s, but thanks to an unprecedented effort among coastal states, the fish was brought back in a resounding and inspiring story of success.

Fisheries management is difficult enough when you have a sedentary stock—a fish that lives and is caught in one place—but stripers are highly migratory. Mostly spawned in the Chesapeake Bay, they spend their mature lives swimming the coasts from Louisiana all the way to Nova Scotia. This pattern gives every state fishery along its route equal rights and responsibilities in the care and proper management of the species.

A five-year moratorium on the fishing of the species allowed protection of spawning fish to be possible year after year. The juveniles of those protected fish are now at full maturity, and I recently heard a fisherman in the Chesapeake Bay proclaim that there are too many rockfish, that they have rebounded beyond their historical highs and are now overpopulated. This is an anecdotal assessment, but fishermen do offer an insight into ecosystems made possible by their intimate relationship with the resource.

Wild striped bass do have a number of toxins that are found in the flesh. Striped bass are at the top of the food chain in their ecosystem, and as they eat, they accumulate environmental toxins in their muscle tissue and fats such as methylmercury, dioxins, and PCBs. Toxicity levels depend on the amount of time a fish spends in a particular body of water.

The Hudson, for example, was for many years the site of industrial discharge that has left the river fouled with high concentrations of PCB. These are harmful to humans at varying levels depending on age, gender, and weight. For more information on toxicity levels in fish, visit our Seafood Decision Guide.

If you broil or grill the fish it is best to cook it with its skin on to preserve moisture and keep the fillet intact. But I remove the skin after cooking, as well as the dark-colored tissue directly beneath the skin, as this is where toxins tend to build up in the flesh. By removing this highly flavored part of the fish, you can reduce but not negate the consumption of toxins.

The fish has a rich and tasty white flesh that is both meaty and robust in its flavor—not fishy, but full flavored. It's a natural fish for the grill but it's really in season in the cooler autumn months, when I like to simmer it in rich stews, like the recipe for autumn bouillabaise with rockfish.

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