Baked Stuffed Striped Bass with Spring Herbs
As regular readers know, we just moved to Portland, Maine from a more rural location down the coast. We’re very happy with Portland for a lot of reasons, not least of which is the variety and freshness of the fish we can get here (and I mean HERE: we live across the street from the docks!) Also, we can get whole fish – where we were before (about a quarter mile from the docks in Ogunquit’s Perkins Cove) there was no retailer that I could find within 30 miles who sold – or even handled – whole fish. They bought their fish cut, from wholesalers in Boston or Portland.
This week I picked up a couple of farm-raised striped bass at Harbor Fish. (Sale of wild-caught striped bass is against the law, so unless you catch them yourself the farm-raised are the only choice for this fish here.) I also stopped by our old house (still on the market) to keep the yard looking good for prospective buyers, and while I was there I harvested a bagful of the perennial herbs from the kitchen garden that are just starting to grow: oregano, thyme (actually from a wild bed on the edge of the forest), sage, parsley and chives.
My usual routine would be to steam this fish in the Asian style, with broth of fermented black beans, Chinese black vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and ginger, but I wanted to use the herbs in my preparation, so I went for a simple Mediterranean approach: the fish, stuffed with crabmeat and chives, was baked on a bed of tomato, tomatilla, onion, garlic and herbs, with a little wine and olive oil, and topped with some smoky bacon. Served with some plain short-grained Japanese rice and steamed greens, it was a glorious celebration of spring herbs and whole fresh fish. The crabmeat/chive stuffing was particularly well-paired with the other components of the dish, and the wine, cooking juices, oil, vegetables, garlic and bacon blended into a broth with a cioppino-like character -- perfect for sopping up with chunks of crusty baguette.
2 1-1/4 lb whole striped bass, scaled and gutted
1 medium Vidalia or other sweet onion
1 medium tomatilla
1 medium ripe tomato
5 large cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
4 T fresh oregano, chopped
2 T fresh thyme, chopped
2 T olive oil
3/4 C white wine
fish sauce, to taste
hot sauce, to taste
3 1” pieces lemon peel
3 tsp lemon juice
2 strips bacon, cut in 1/2” pieces
For the stuffing:
6 oz fresh crab meat
1/4 C panko flakes
1/4 C fresh chives, chopped
1 tsp lemon juice
Wash and dry the fish. Score each side three times, cutting about 1/4” deep in parallel cuts. Salt the skin and cavity lightly.
Cut the tomato, tomatilla, and onion in crescents. Mix them in a bowl with the garlic, oregano, thyme, olive oil, lemon peel, lemon juice and wine. Season to taste with the fish sauce and hot sauce. (A healthy amount of fish sauce is very beneficial to this dish – I didn’t measure but it must have been at least 2 tablespoons.) Toss well.
Mix all the ingredients for the stuffing in a separate bowl.
Place 2/3 of the tomato mixture in a roasting pan large enough to accommodate the fish without crowding. Lay the fish on the vegetables. Divide the stuffing in half and place in the cavities of the fish. Scatter the remaining vegetables over the fish and pour any juice that remains in the vegetable bowl over the fish. Lay the bacon bits on top.
Bake in a preheated 375º oven about 30 minutes, until the onions are almost tender. With two spatulas, or a spatula and a large spoon, carefully transfer the fish and vegetables to a warm platter, pouring any pan juices over the fish. Cover with foil and allow to rest 10 minutes before serving.