Monday, March 28, 2011

Fresh-Caught White Bass, Salsify, and Charred Leeks

My coworker, Joe, spent the past few weeks talking about how he was going to take a day off soon to go fishing.  "As soon as the dogwoods bloom I'm taking a day off" became his daily mantra.  I kept jokingly saying that as long as I got fish out of the deal, it would be no problem.  Joe's fish-dar went off on Tuesday morning and later that afternoon I got a phone call saying he had 3 white bass for me, complete with facebook pics to support credibility.  The last time I had the opportunity to use fresh caught fish was during my Thanksgiving trip to South Carolina, also my first and only time fishing, and it was a great memory.  Needless to say, Tuesday afternoon and evening were spent feverishly trying to learn as much as I could about white bass and what was going to be for dinner Wednesday night.  I had a little bit of pressure on me because Joe said that I was going to be his test subject to find out if the fish were any good or not, as he hadn't ever tried cooking them before.  Just a little pressure to not ruin his catch =).

White bass are a freshwater fish, native from the Great Lakes all down through the Mississippi River basin and all of it's tributaries, making it available basically throughout basically the entire midwest and a significant portion of the southeast, as well as into Texas.  I haven't seen them in stores before, but they seem to be a very popular sport fishing catch.  They spend their winters in warmer deep water, and when spring comes around, they travel up into the rivers for spawning season.  The prime time to catch them is during this spawning run, and they have a reputation for being plentiful an easy to catch during this time.  Fisherman's lore says that when the Dogwoods begin to bloom, the water will be warm enough to trigger the spring run.  It turns out that it's true, with Joe's first day out resulting in almost 2 dozen fish caught and released, as well as the 3 that he kept for me.  I decided to try to make something Spanish inspired - what I had read told me that the white bass tasted pretty fishy, to the point where a lot of people don't keep them after catching despite no limits on keeping them, so I thought some other bold flavors would compliment it well.  I decided to go with pan frying the fish with some charred leeks, roasted salsify (something I've been wanting to make for a long time) and a romesco sauce.  Just the leeks and romesco would have been a great meal on its own, so it turned out really fantastic when adding the incredibly fresh fish to the mix.

Pan-fried White Bass with Salsify, Charred Leeks, and Romesco
For the fish:
1 whole white bass or similar smaller fish
2 fresh bay leaves
Fresh thyme sprig

For the romesco:
1 head garlic
1 slice crusty bread
¼ c hazelnuts
¼ c blanched almonds
2 Roma tomatoes
8 oz roasted red peppers
1 c olive oil
1/2 c sherry vinegar (roughly)
1/4 tsp smoked paprika

For the salsify:
1 lb salsify root
2 fresh bay leaves
1/4 c melted butter

For the leeks:
~1 lb trimmed leeks (I used 2 bunches)
olive oil

Cleaning the fish was an experiment.  Their scales are huge, much bigger than I expected, and they are straight up tenacious.  These fish are also slippery as hell, even after rinsing in cold water, it was hard to get a good grip on them.  I tried to fillet the first fish but was unhappy with the size of fillets, which prompted me to roast the second fish whole and set aside the fillets for another use.  The fish smelled like a river basin after a rain storm, very sweet and refreshing, a nice sign of their freshness.

For the leeks:

Start by cutting them down to just the stalks and slice lengthwise, rinsing after cutting.  Brush both sides with olive oil and sprinkle a little salt on them.  Broil the leeks and keep an eye on them, because they burn and turn papery pretty easily.  Stir often with tongs once the layers start to fall apart, and when most of the pieces are softened and some have a nice brown char on them, take them out of the broiler.  Place them in a bowl and put a foil tent over the bowl.  They will finish softening on their own.

For the romesco:

First we are going to roast the garlic.  Preheat the oven to 350º.  Cut the top off of the garlic head.  Take a small foil square and place the garlic head in the middle.  Drizzle with olive oil and wrap up the foil into a little packet.  Roast the garlic for 45 minutes, until the cloves are so tender that they pop right out of their paper.  Toast the hazelnuts for 10 minutes or so in the oven as well.  Let them cool for a few minutes and then, in batches, place them in a paper towel sheet and rub together vigorously to remove the papery husks.  Fry the bread in olive oil in a skillet until golden on both sides and then chop into ½" chunks.  Dice the tomatoes and saute in the same pan as the bread for 5 minutes, until they are broken down.  Place the almonds, hazelnuts and bread into a food processor and process until finely chopped.  Squeeze the garlic cloves into the food processor along with the tomatoes, drained red peppers, and paprika.  Blend for a few seconds and then drizzle the olive oil into the still running processor to emulsify it into the sauce.  Add the vinegar after the oil, and stop blending.  Check the sauce, adjust to taste with salt and pepper, adding more olive oil or vinegar if necessary to balance.

For the salsify:

Salsify is an interesting root vegetable - it is also known as oyster root and is said to taste reminiscent of oysters in some preparations.  I've had it before but have never cooked it, so I was excited to check it out.

It discolors very quickly so keep a bowl of water ready with a dash of white vinegar or lemon juice to preserve the color.  Set the oven to 400º.  Peel the roots with a vegetable peeler and cut the ends off.  Cut into a small dice and keep it in the acidic water until ready to roast.  When all salsify is prepped, melt the butter in the microwave with the bay leaves.  Place the salsify on a baking sheet and pour the butter on top.  Toss the salsify in the butter and roast  for approximately 20 minutes, and keep the oven on for the fish.

For the fish:

Salt and pepper the fish well, both the cavity and the outside.  Place a couple of lemon slices in the cavity.  Heat a cast iron skillet to medium-high and place 2 tbsp butter in the pan along with a bay leaf.  When the butter foam subsides, add the fish.  Baste the clean side of the fish with the butter regularly.  After 5 or so minutes, flip the fish carefully and continue basting the other side for another 5 minutes.  Place the fish in the oven for 10 minutes and then remove.

This white bass was big enough that it best served 2 people, so I plated by putting the salsify on one side and the leeks on the other.  Place the fish on top and spoon the sauce on the sides.  The fish is somewhat bony in the belly so be careful for that.  Otherwise, it should flake right off and was delicious alongside the romesco (which, really, basically makes anything awesome).

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