A couple weeks ago I teamed up with Iso Rabins of Forage SF to do a joint book dinner and fishing expedition — part of my seemingly endless tour promoting Hunt, Gather, Cook. We had a great day on the water, thanks in no small part to Capt. Tom Mattusch of the Huli-Cat, who put us on fish and answered all the questions any of the newbies had. (I fished with Tom last fall for Dungeness crabs… )
The rock cod fishing was so good that Iso and I decided we had more than enough for our Wild Kitchen dinner the following night, so everyone got to take home some fish, too. Even me. I made sure to keep two beautiful rock cod, a China cod and a copper rockfish.
Now anyone who has done any rock cod fishing along the Pacific Coast knows there is a dizzying array of species living in and around the rocky bottom; Capt. Tom likes to say you need a PhD to decipher them all. Lots of fishing writers, and even a few food writers, will tell you there is no real difference between the species in the kitchen. They’re wrong. There is a striking difference.
The China cod, or China rockfish (Sebastes nebulosus) is one of the most sought-after species in the mix. According to Wikipedia, its maximum size is 18 inches, and the one I caught was close to that length, about 14 inches. A nice fish. Chinas are bottom feeders, eating starfish, chitons, crabs and other crustaceans. That diet makes them sweet, and historically they have sold for twice the price of other rock cod species — this is still true today if you go to an Asian fish market, whose customers are more discriminating than your typical suburban Anglo seeking tilapia.
Another reason the China cod is so sought after is because it has a very fine flake to the meat. Many rock cod flake out coarsely, even falling apart after cooking; blacks and olives are notorious for this. But the meat of a China cod has delicate flakes, like a walleye or an Atlantic black seabass.
The other rock cod I kept was a copper rockfish, sebastes caurinus. Coppers are larger than China cod, reaching 10 pounds. Mine was maybe 2 pounds. Like China cod, coppers eat crabs and shrimpy things, but they will also go after squid and octopus. Maybe this is why that at least to me, the meat of a copper tastes more savory-umami than that of a China cod. To me. copper rockfish tastes a lot like a young striped bass.
On to the grilling.
Let me start by saying that I almost always cook bass-like fish whole. Why? They have huge heads for their size, and big, round rib cages. This means you get a paltry yield off them if you try to fillet the fish. Unless you are very good, your yield will be barely 30 percent of live weight. Contrast that with salmon, where you can get upwards of 60-70 percent. I don’t like that kind of waste, and I grew up eating whole fish — both out of frugality and custom. And I do love me some fish cheeks…
Keep in mind this rule applies to any bass-like fish, not just rock cod. Fish I normally cook whole include: largemouth and smallmouth bass, black seabass, porgies, small carp, small snapper, freshwater drum, croakers, spotted sea trout, yellow perch, pompano, triggerfish, etc.
If the fish are small, I crispy fry them, often Chinese style. But summer is for grilling. First I slice the fish several times perpendicular to the backbone — this opens the fish to the heat better, so it cooks evenly — then I coat them in olive oil and salt, then, after the fish are grilled, sauce them with an herb vinaigrette. I have a recipe for this method, using porgies and oregano oil, in Hunt, Gather, Cook.
This time I chose a basil vinaigrette I developed with my friend Elise over at Simply Recipes. Why basil? because it’s summer, and it felt right. You could use any herb you want. Or leave the sauce out completely and just go with lemon.
simple grilled fish with basil
Grilling a whole fish is not difficult, but there are a few tricks to doing it without having the fish stuck to your grill grates. Any whole fish will do, but you generally want them single-serving size, about 9-14 inches long. Make sure they are well coated in oil, well salted and make sure your grill is nice and hot, and you will be fine.
One last thing: Make sure your fish are scaled, gutted and have their gills removed — you don’t want to eat scales, and the gills can make the fish taste a little bitter, so cut them out with kitchen shears. Watch out! They are sharp.
Serves 2-4, depending on your appetite.
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
- 2 whole fish, scaled, gutted and with gills removed
- Olive oil
- 1 recipe, basil vinaigrette
- Wash the fish well and make 3-5 slashes in the meat perpendicular to the backbone on each side of the fish. You are doing this to open the interior of the fish to the heat, so it will cook evenly. Make more slashes closer to the head, where the fish is thicker, than toward the tail, which cook first. Snip off any sharp fins with kitchen shears or scissors. Leave the tail, as it will crisp up and taste wonderfully nutty. Seriously. Try it.
- Coat the fish with olive oil and salt it a little more than you think you ought to; salty fish tastes good!
- Get your grill crazy hot, at least 550 degrees, and scrape the grill grates well to clean them. When you are ready to lay the fish down, dip a paper towel in some oil and grab it with tongs. Wipe down the grill with the oily towel and them immediately lay the fish down on the grill grates. Let them sizzle nicely for a minute or so.
- Turn the heat down to medium and cover the grill if you have a gas grill, or just leave the fish on the open grill if you are using wood or charcoal and the grill is very hot. Let the fish cook for a total of 5-6 minutes on this side, depending on how thick it is. A general rule is a fish will need 10 minutes per inch of thickness.
- To turn the fish, have your tongs in your “off” hand and a big spatula in your good hand. Gently turn the fish over. It should come off the grates cleanly. If not, don’t force it. Let the fish back down and come back at it with the spatula, using pressure to pry it off the grates. You don’t want to pull the fish away from the grates and have half the skin and meat stick to the grill. Once the fish is flipped, let it cook for another 5-6 minutes.
- Once the fish is ready — check by making sure the meat closest to the bone in the slash that is closest to the head of the fish is fully cooked — put it on a platter and drizzle the vinaigrette over it. Enjoy!