In 1972, the California Legislature passed a law prohibiting the use of the designation "red snapper" as a name for local rockfish, but the name of this unrelated Gulf Coast member of the drum family is still applied to California fish. (The red snapper's taste and texture are different from our local rockfish's.) West Coast fish dealers have long sought to stimulate sales by using other inappropriate names as well. Rock cod, Pacific red snapper or Pacific snapper are other improper aliases for the rockfish species that are applied freely by the seafood industry.
Increasing consumer sophistication may achieve what legislation has failed to accomplish: to encourage proper labeling and recognition for our indigenous resources. Lumping the 25 or more varieties of rockfish under the name of snapper or rock cod also discourages the consumer from learning about the differences among the rockfish varieties. Rockfish can be divided into three categories:
--The deep-bodied varieties with names such as bolina, gopher and china have large spines. They have fine-fleshed, firm meat, which can be cooked whole.
--The large, deep-bodied rockfish are also spiny. They have slightly coarser flesh than the bolina group and sweet meat comparable to sea bass. Included in this category are fantail, cow cod, vermilion, turkey red and golden eye. These fish produce large fillets, which can be grilled, baked or poached. They can also be steamed or fried whole.
--Common rockfish have more slender bodies and fewer, shorter spines. These varieties make up the bulk of the catch. Bocaccio, chili pepper, yellowtail, black and blue are commonly sold as fillets, which are softer and not quite as flavorful as the spiny fish. Firmer fillets can be grilled; sauteing, braising and baking suit all the common rockfish.
Rockfish are generally moderately priced and often are very fresh since they are caught in local waters. Most fishmongers will be able to supply whole fish if given advance notice, and they can sometimes obtain the variety you want, depending on seasonal availability.
This rockfish recipe calls for a cleaned, whole fish. Yellowtail, black or blue rockfish as well as the deep-bodied fish would be appropriate.
BAKED STUFFED ROCKFISH
1 (2 1/2-to-3-pound) rockfish
1 green pepper, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 jalapeno or other hot chiles, seeded and chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
3 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or 1 cup canned tomatoes
1/4 cup cilantro leaves
1 1/2 cups cooked rice
Wash fish and dry thoroughly. Set aside.
Saute green pepper, onion, chiles and garlic in hot oil until onion is translucent. Add tomatoes and cilantro. Cook 1 additional minute, then combine with rice. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove to bowl to cool.
Stuff body and head of fish with rice mixture. Wrap fish in foil, sealing carefully. Bake at 450 degrees 20 to 25 minutes or until skewer easily pierces through foil and through thickest part of fish. Unwrap package and remove stuffing, spooning it around fish. Garnish with lemon wedges and serve. Make 3 to 4 servings.