Here on the Vineyard, when people mention the word “Bass”, they’re usually referring to the Striped Bass, or “Striper”, a fish known for its size and fighting abilities in addition to being excellent table fare. For our money however, the most delicious bass in these waters is the Black Sea Bass, or Centropristis striata, actually a member of the grouper family. Often shortened to “sea bass” or simply “black bass”, they spend the winter in offshore waters at depths ranging from 240 feet to over 600 feet. During the spring, they migrate into shallower inshore waters to spawn. In southern New England, they generally reproduce from about mid-May until the end of June. Interestingly, most black sea bass are hermaphroditic, beginning their life as females and producing eggs for the first few seasons. Eventually, their ovaries become non functional and they transition into males. Large males, like this 5 lb. specimen, tend to develop a hump on their heads just forward of the dorsal fin. In Massachusetts, the Black Sea Bass season typically opens mid-May and runs through late October. Black Sea Bass are bottom dwellers, and are usually found over hard rocky bottoms or areas with abundant underwater structure, like shipwrecks. Most anglers target sea bass using hooks baited with strips of squid, but shiny jigs bounced on the bottom can also be effective.
We like to leave the skin on our sea bass filets, especially when grilling, so scaling the fish is a necessity. Although tools specifically designed to scale fish are readily available, you can use whatever is handy, such as a butter knife. Working from the tail towards the head, scrape the scales away, paying special attention to the sharp spines located along the fish’s dorsal fin. It takes a fair amount of force to remove the scales, and the skin is more resilient than you would expect, no need to be delicate.
After scaling, we like to give the fish a thorough rinse, ensuring that no scales remain.
To filet, we start by making a diagonal cut just behind the pectoral fin, angled towards the head.
Then, using the tip of a sharp filet knife, we follow the contour of the dorsal fin back towards the tail.
Using one hand to help peel the filet back, we filet the meat away, staying as close to the spine as possible, trying to minimize waste. The rib section is especially hard to cut through, and as it is full of small bones, we usually just work around it, leaving us with a perfect boneless filet.
We found this recipe for Grilled Barramundi in Asian Spiced Coconut Milk in Steven Raichlen’s Barbecue Bible. Like Barramundi, Black Sea Bass has firm, white flesh with a sweet taste that we thought would pair excellently with the Asian inspired ingredients. After preparing the marinade and letting it cool, we placed our filets in a large zip lock bag, covered them in the mixture, reserving some marinade for later, and put them in the refrigerator to soak for a couple hours. When ready to cook, we lit a chimney starter full of hard wood charcoal, which burns hotter than regular briquettes. A key to keeping your fish from sticking to the grill is making sure that your fire is hot enough, this is hard to do with standard charcoal. We like to use our “Grill Wok” instead of a fish basket, making sure it’s preheated and well lubricated with some kind of vegetable oil. Over a very hot fire, we grilled the filets for about four minutes a side, meanwhile, we heated the remaining portion of marinade, to top the finished fish with. While the recipe called for garnishing with sliced kaffir lime leaves, we substituted a bit of fresh lime zest.
With coconut milk, lemongrass, Galangal, shallot and hot peppers, the pungent sauce was reminiscent of Thai cooking, with flavors that were rich and assertive, but also well balanced. The fish had a smoky charred exterior and crisp skin that provided a bit of texture. The heat level was just right, spicy enough to get your attention, but not so much that it burned out our palates. With its mild flavor and appealing texture, Black Sea Bass lends itself to almost any preparation, it’s fantastic when fried, as well as roasted whole. Even people who “don’t like” fish often make exceptions for the clean flavor of freshly caught Black Sea Bass.
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