When people think of summertime Maryland seafood, crabs are usually the first thing that pop (or claw) their way to mind. That makes sense – blue crabs have been synonymous with the Chesapeake Bay for centuries.
But crabs aren’t the only great-tasting food that comes out of the Bay during the lazy days of summer. Though it doesn’t get the star billing crabs typically receive, rockfish has earned a spot in the hearts of Chesapeake Bay-area seafood fans.
Rockfish, which is the Maryland state fish, comes with its own, slightly confusing backstory. In other parts of the country, the fish is called striped bass (or stripers) – and our rockfish is not the same as the rockfish caught in the Pacific Ocean. Also, sometimes we just call it “rock.” Keeping up can be tricky.
Chesapeake rockfish differ a little from stripers you’ll find in other parts of the country. Because they spawn in the Bay then migrate to the ocean when they are a few years old, Chesapeake rockfish are young. Once they reach the ocean, they might live for decades.
A seasonal Annapolis fish
Rockfish fishing is heavily regulated in Maryland. Though people can fish in certain parts of the Bay all year long, fishermen can only keep what they catch between mid-April and mid-December; specific limits and size restrictions differ during that time.
What this means for visitors is that they’re most likely to see rockfish on menus starting in the late spring, through the fall. Unsurprisingly, Annapolis restaurants have learned to master the firm white fish.
Given its seasonal nature, rockfish is often relegated to the “specials” list at local restaurants. If you see it there, don’t pass it up. It’s mild, meaty and a fantastic base for complicated sauces, but it’s also excellent simply grilled with butter or even served raw, in ceviche form.
Some of my favorite preparations around town are at Harvest Wood Grill + Tap downtown, at Boatyard Bar & Grill in Eastport and at Cantler’s Riverside Inn, a waterfront spot best known for its steamed crabs, located just outside the city.
At Harvest Wood, Chef Keith Long does some fantastic things with bright, powerful sauces, like a romesco sauce, an almond and red pepper-based sauce originating from Northern Spain that he spoons on top of the fish, giving it tons of zest. His version proves that though rockfish is a mild white fish, it’s no shrinking violet. Even strong sauces don’t overwhelm it.
At Boatyard, Chef George mixes up his preparations. Rock makes frequent appearances on the specials menu, sometimes paired with lump crab. Given that they’re neighbors in the Bay, it makes sense that rockfish + crab is a home run on the plate.
At Harvest Wood and Boatyard, rockfish dishes typically seem sophisticated. Cantler’s approach is a little different. Cantler’s is a casual joint serving casual food – including their rockfish bites, which are blackened and served over crunchy slaw. They’re spicy, moist and unforgettable.
Whether the preparation is over-the-top fancy or completely unfussy, it really doesn’t matter. Rockfish, in season, will make you smile.
Keith Long, the chef and operator of Harvest Wood Grill + Tap, has created a terrific recipe for sauce romesco, which he pairs with grilled rockfish, carrots and asparagus. The sauce is easy enough to cook at home – and Chef Long is nice enough to share. Give this a try in the restaurant next time you’re downtown – or in your very own kitchen.
- 12 ounce can roasted piquillo pepper, juice drained
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 ounce Marcona almonds, smoked (if you can’t find, or smoke, the almonds, toast them in the oven at 350 degrees, for 15-18 minutes, before using)
- 1 tablespoon parmesan cheese
- 1 ½ tablespoons Xeres vinegar
- 1 teaspoon Baliene sea salt
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
To make the sauce Romesco, combine piquillo peppers, garlic, almonds, cheese, vinegar and sea salt in a high speed blender, gradually increasing the speed until it is on high.
Once on high, as the peppers begin to puree, begin drizzling in the olive oil, until all is incorporated.
The sauce will last in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
Photo courtesy of Keith Long, chef and operator of Harvest Wood Grill + Tap.