During the summer months, a lot of Marylanders love to drive around the back roads of our state looking for unexpected adventures. If you happen to be anywhere near the water, whether Eastern Shore or Western, you might want to keep your eyes peeled for little shops that sell the bounty of the bay. Chef Jerry Pellegrino says there are some amazing and totally unexpected fish being caught in the bay that offer up good eating.
One of the best known is the blue catfish, a non-native species that has been thriving in our waters. These fish have become so commonplace that we see them in the market all the time. Catfish in general have something of an undeserved bad rap, because the southern riverine variety is thought to be a bottom-dwelling mud-loving garbage fish that is just plain foul. Well the blue catfish likes much cleaner waters, and is perfectly delicious. Just be sure to cut away the long dark streak that runs the length of the fish.
A few years ago a bizarre species known as the snakehead terrorized our public imagination as the dreaded "Frankenfish." This ugly critter was said to crawl around on dry land looking for virgin ponds, lakes and streams to populate. While still considered invasive, it hasn't quite taken over Maryland waters the way we once feared.
What it has done is emerge as a surprisingly tasty fish. Watermen who know a thing or two about what's good to eat, swear by it and don't hesitate to cook it up.
Its firm white flesh cooks easily and has a lot of flavor. So if you run across any snakehead filets in your travels, don't hesitate to buy some and take it home for the frying pan.
Another fish that you might come across is a new one to me. Everybody has heard of the Japanese puffer fish, that spiky globular creature that can poison an entire dinner table. Believe it or not, we have a puffer fish here in the Bay, but I'm happy to report that it is perfectly safe to eat. And it's quite good too, or so I'm told.
If you see something called "sea squab" being sold, you're looking at Maryland puffer fish.
One of the least known aspects of the Maryland fishery is the eel. These slippery finless creatures exist in large numbers in the Bay and its tributaries where they prefer deep cold water. Most watermen keep themselves busy going after rockfish, perch, and those clue catfish, but quite a few have a side hustle hunting the elusive eel.
Eel traps themselves are almost works of woven art. Classically made from willow, these contraptions contain hourglass shaped entry passages inside a cylindrical cage. The eels can get in, but getting out is another matter.
I recently went out with a couple Kent Island watermen and I learned that there is no shortage of eel in the Bay, and yes, they are impossible to grab a hold of.
I have to admit to having had a food aversion to eel, but all sorts of friends said they like it a lot. Of course all of you who enjoy a plate of sushi know that, but I had to try for myself. I dismissed the usual claims that it tastes "just like chicken" but guess what? It does. Which is to say the flavor of cooked chicken thighs with the texture of chewy grilled calamari. Eel is not a fatty fish, so be sure to give it plenty of sauce. My research indicates that grilling is the preferred method of cooking.