Why does striped bass taste so good? Here’s a clue:

The other day I was up visiting charter captain Buddy Vanderhoop in Menemsha. He told me about a striper he caught last summer that weighed 44 pounds. “She was so fat that I was really curious about what she’d been eating. I opened up her belly and found one two and a half-pound lobster, one one and a half-pound lobster, and five small lobsters,” he told me.

Wow, that was one gluttonous fish, I thought.

But no wonder stripers make such delicious eating — in addition to feeding on crustaceans, they love eels, squid, mackerel and of course, smaller fish like menhaden (what we call pogies or bunker here) that they chase up the coast from late May to October.

“And in August, they just go nuts over krill,” Buddy told me. Krill are tiny crustaceans that feed on phytoplankton and in turn become a major food source for whales, seals, penguins and certain fish. They tend to migrate towards the ocean surface at night, which can result in an all-out feeding frenzy for stripers.

So let’s just say stripers have good taste. But since these gourmands also appreciate seasonal dining, a striper in June might taste a little different from a striper In August. In fact, like all good food affected by environmental factors that can be super-local, even two stripers caught in July could taste slightly different, depending on where they’ve been feeding and on what. Even the age of the fish can affect flavor and texture. Last week I bought fresh striper twice for recipe testing, and one fish was decidedly larger, fattier, and more distinctly flavorful.

It's striped-bass season and that is good news. — Jeanna Shepard

Some of the stripers we’re getting on the Island right now may be coming from south of Squibby or even the north shore, but others may be coming from as far away as Chatham or Provincetown, according to Otto Osmers, a young fisherman I spoke with up at the Menemsha Fish House. He and his co-workers Isaac Richards and Jackson Trevor told me that stripers aren’t making up a huge percentage of what fisherman are bringing in right now — fluke is leading the way, and sea bass are also abundant.

That isn’t necessarily surprising considering that the striper population, though it has rebounded in recent years after its collapse in the 1970s and 1980s, still isn’t what it used to be. Also, according to this week’s update of Massachusetts fish quotas, only 20 per cent of this year’s commercial striper quota has been caught as of July 23. Without last year’s data, I wouldn’t know how to judge what that means, but for the last few years, the quota has generally been met sometime in August. (Of course, non-commercial fishermen, like those participating in the striped bass and bluefish derby which begins Sept. 9, can still catch stripers.)

But considering that in all likelihood we only have a few weeks left to buy this delicious fish (and then we will depend on the kindness or excess of neighbors unless we are fisherpeople), now is the time to enjoy it — and to treat it with all the respect it deserves. Though in truth it is a very forgiving fish.

Striper has a wonderful texture — meaty and firm but not too firm. In fact when it’s cooked, the white flesh has an almost silky mouth feel. It’s a decidedly rich fish (all those crustacean snacks) and the flavor is both briny and sweet. Because of that richness, the fish pairs especially well with acidic ingredients and especially with one of our favorite summer ingredients — tomatoes.

While several people I spoke with this week said they just “throw striper on the grill,” I didn’t think it advisable to pass that technique along to you and leave it at that. Visions of frustrated cooks scraping bits of fish off the grill grates filled my head. Also, while Buddy Vanderhoop described an elaborate stuffed striper preparation that includes crab, scallops and shrimp in the stuffing (yum), that didn’t sound like a good repertoire recipe you could pull off on a Friday night with friends suddenly coming over. (Or without damaging your debit card.) But if you see Buddy, get him to describe it to you.

Instead I decided to share a restaurant technique called sear-roasting that’s actually perfect for home cooks and a lovely way to cook striper. Filets are browned first on the stovetop and then finished in the oven. The tops have a nice golden crust; inside the flesh stays moist. To pair with the rich fish, I made a cherry tomato, corn and basil dressing (sauce-salsa-salad or what have you) to drape over the fish — or to serve with whatever you’re cooking this summer.

After that, you could certainly give grilling a try another time. Just be sure to preheat the grill until the grates are good and hot; oil your grill grates well; and don’t move the fish in the first few minutes of cooking. Better yet, invest in an enameled steel grill tray which will make sliding a spatula under the fish much easier. Lastly, you can coat the fish with a thin layer of mayonnaise (spiked with a little mustard and lemon juice) before cooking; that will form a subtle coating when cooked.

However you cook it, Vineyard striper is the perfect centerpiece for an all-Vineyard meal that might not only include tomatoes and corn but also fresh green beans, new potatoes, grilled local bread, and, of course, a blueberry pie.

 

Here's the recipe for Sear Roasted Striped Bass with Summer Tomato-Fresh Corn Dressing.