Our black wall phone rang — yes, this happened that long ago — and I heard my husband’s cousin Edward Redonnet’s excited voice on the other end. Edward is a laid-back Grateful-Dead-loving dude, so his tone got my attention.
“It was a good day fishing off Race Point Beach. Can I stop by?” Edward was visiting his mom up the hill on Pleasant Point in Wellfleet, but Provincetown was where he most loved to fish during striper season.
He had a fish, and I had sharp knives and the skills to break it down; fileting fish was part of my routine in professional kitchens. But this fish wasn’t like any I’d ever seen: it was a behemoth with ruby gills and golden eyes, a shimmering silver with distinctive inky solid stripes, pristine. It was truly magnificent — and too big for our kitchen counter.
We laid cutting boards side by side on the table on our deck, and Edward set his awesome catch on top. Slicing and lifting the filets from the frame was an honor. The meat was gorgeous: opalescent, dense, and sea sweet. I couldn’t resist shaving off thin slices for the freshest sashimi we had ever eaten.
This was years ago, but my appreciation for this noble fish hasn’t wavered. I get a little giddy when locals announce that the stripers are running, and talk in Wellfleet turns to where the fish are biting. That time is now.
Striped bass are a summer fish here on Cape Cod, where none of us can imagine eating the hybrid farmed version found in city restaurants. It’s a quota-managed species, so for commercial folks the season’s length is different every summer. But the rules for recreational fishing are about size, and a big fish like the one Edward brought us would not be legal this year. The upper limit is 31 inches now because scientists have learned that the big bass are virtually all egg-bearing females, important to restoring stocks.
This is a versatile fish, delicious roasted, sauteed, or steamed. But in summer when turning on the stove feels onerous, grilling is the way to go. Grilling fish can be intimidating — you don’t want to overcook it. And not all fish are up to it — some are too delicate, and when grilling, meatier is better. If tuna, swordfish, and salmon are your go-to fish for grilling, striped bass is in your wheelhouse, too. It’s the one flaky, white-fleshed fish that takes to grilling.
At the market, ask for pieces closer to the head for even thickness and with the skin on to make them easier to maneuver. It also helps to cut the fish into portions before grilling.
Grilling is not like turning on the stove. Every fire — charcoal, hardwood, or gas — is different. But think of building a fire and then judging the heat by moving your hand across the grate as part of the primal thrill of grilling. When grilling bass, my default is to cook it directly over moderate heat, erring towards hotter.
There are advocates for grill baskets, designed to prevent the fish from sticking to the grill. But I tried one recently and being unfamiliar with the somewhat awkward mechanism, I flubbed it. My cooked fish landed on the floor. So, I stay old school and place fish right on the lightly oiled grate, skin side up. The key is trusting both the fire and the fish. The fish will stick at first, but within minutes it will sear and separate from the grill.
Generally, I leave the grill uncovered for the satisfaction of watching the fish cook, but that isn’t a hard and fast rule. A covered grill mimics an oven, so if you are shy about turning the fish, or need a blast of heat to finish off a thick piece, cover the grill to roast the fish.
“How did you get the fish cooked so perfectly?” a friend asked last time I grilled striped bass.
“I took its temperature,” I said. Using an instant-read thermometer — you want the fish at 130° F — is a simple way to take the guesswork out of getting it done just right.
A salsa that’s almost a salad is a bright complement to the slight smoky char of the fish. Staying cool and summery, I toss bright gingery cucumber — I use Kirbys from the farmers market because they’re firm and mild and there’s no need to peel them — and peaches. Taking inspiration from the Thai kitchen, I finish the salsa with handfuls of basil, mint, and cilantro.
As for Edward, he’s now a washashore. He has given up casting off the beach (“too many seals”) for surfing. But he still loves striped bass. We have a new arrangement: he’s an accomplished musician, so he strums his ukulele while I tend the fire.
Grilled Striped Bass With Cucumber-Peach Salsa
Makes 4 servings
3-to-4-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
Finely grated zest and juice of one lime
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin peanut or olive oil, plus extra for grilling
3 Kirby cucumbers
1 large firm-ripe peach
1 scallion, white and green parts, very thinly sliced
1 to 3 tsp. minced Fresno or jalapeño chile, or to taste
¾ cup basil leaves
½ cup mint leaves
½ cup cilantro leaves
Four 6-oz. center-cut striped bass filets
- Prepare an outdoor grill, going for medium-high heat.
- Meanwhile, make the salsa: Very finely grate the ginger with a microplane or the finest holes of a grater into a bowl to make a heaping tablespoon of ginger with juice. Whisk in the lime zest and juice and the oil and season with a teaspoon of salt. Quarter the cucumbers lengthwise, trim and discard the seeds; then thinly slice crosswise. Add to the dressing and toss. Halve, pit, and dice the peach and add it to the cucumbers. Add the scallion, then the chiles to taste. Mix the herbs together, chop (don’t overdo it or the herbs will get bruised), and gently fold into the salad. Season with salt to taste. Set aside while you grill.
- Brush the filets on both sides with oil and season the meaty side with salt and freshly ground pepper. Lay the fish skin side up on the grill. Leave it until the fish turns opaque about halfway up the side, about 5 minutes. Test by gently lifting a corner — if the fish resists and sticks, cook it a bit longer. Season the skin with salt, turn the filet over, and cook 1-3 minutes depending on thickness (an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of the filet should register between 130-135° F).
- Transfer the fish to serving plates. Toss cucumber salad to make sure it’s evenly dressed and spoon it over the fish with the collected juices.
On the Side: Grilled Corn With Miso Butter
In late summer, any time the grill is lit, grilled corn, done right in the husk, is the perfect little lagniappe. I like to finish it with miso butter, which you can make ahead. It will keep in the refrigerator for a week or in the freezer for a month.
½ stick unsalted butter, softened
2 Tbsp. white miso
4 ears of corn, in husks
- Blend the butter and miso together in a medium bowl with a spoon. Refrigerate until ready to serve. (If you’re making it ahead, transfer the butter to a square piece of plastic wrap, wax paper, or parchment and roll it like a log, twisting the ends like a party favor.)
- Lay the corn on the moderate heat part of the grill. Cook, turning periodically, until the corn is steamed, 10-12 minutes, depending on the freshness of the corn. Shuck and serve with the miso butter.