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AT THE MARKET / WHITE SEA BASS

Fishermen Predict a Good Season : Dive boat crews and others spot large numbers of the favored fish, prized for its delicate flavor and tender flesh.

June 17, 1993|RODNEY BOSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seafood enthusiasts will be glad to hear the forecast of commercial fishermen, who predict that this summer's local white sea bass season--which opened yesterday--should bring a plenitude of fish to local markets.

For about the next three months, the prized catch will be harvested along the California coast, including Ventura County waters just off the Channel Islands.

"I think there's going to be lots of sea bass this season," said fisherman Bill Sutton, who is also the proprietor of Seafresh Seafood in Ojai. "Early indications are it's going to be a good season."

Such prognostication is based on the fact that fish have been spotted in good numbers.

"We know they're here because the sport fishermen and the dive boats are seeing them," said Michael Wagner, owner of Andrea's Seafood in Ventura.

The white sea bass, lauded for its delicate flavor and tender, yet firm flesh, is often compared to another esteemed favorite, the halibut, said another local fish man, Joe Carabajal, manager of Otani Izzy Fish Market in Oxnard.

"It is very popular," Carabajal said. "White sea bass is really one of the best fish in the world. You can eat it raw as sashimi or ceviche. The flavor is distinct, but mild. And there's no offensive fishy taste."

While the catch is at times unpredictable--Carabajal said last year's was disappointing--prices can fluctuate. If supplies remain consistent throughout the season, fish buyers should expect to pay about $8 a pound for fillets and about $6 a pound for 1 1/2-inch steaks.

When purchasing white sea bass, keep in mind that freshness of flesh is indicated by an almost translucent appearance, Carabajal said.

"Fresh sea bass is real white and kind of clear. You should also look for a bright red blood line right down the center of the fillet," he said.

"A lot of times you'll see white see bass in the deli case as a whole fish," Wagner said. "The fish tends to change in color when it is exposed to air in the deli case. That's why we don't cut it beforehand, we cut for you on the spot. That helps to preserve the flavor too."

Purchasing your fillets or steaks from a whole fish has other advantages as well.

"Look at the eyeballs," Sutton said. "They should be clear and not foggy. And if there's any question, ask them to pull it out of the case so you can smell the fish."

With a whole fish you also know exactly what you're getting--ensuring that it is indeed white sea bass and not a different species sold under that name.

(Tip: Freshly caught white sea bass is steel blue above and silvery white on the lower sides and belly.)

Shoppers may also want to inquire whether a fish market's white sea bass was caught locally or in Mexican waters, which is where a lot of sea bass is fished.

"There's a big difference," Carabajal said. "Sea bass must be handled very carefully because it bruises very easily--the flesh will discolor, it will get a brown tinge.

"The Mexican sea bass isn't always handled that well and doesn't get to market nearly as fast," he said. "We just buy the local fish because we can get it just as soon as it is caught."

SOMETHING FISHY

Joe Carabajal, manager of Otani Izzy Fish Market in Oxnard, offered the following preparation for lightly breaded white sea bass.

"Use the Japanese-style bread crumbs, called panko, " he said.

First off, the filets should be salted and peppered to taste on both sides. Next, immerse the filets in beaten egg and roll in the panko , covering the entire fillet with the crumbs.

Pan-fry the breaded fish in oil--using a very hot skillet--for a couple of minutes on each side, until light golden-brown.

"Serve with Teriyaki sauce on the side, steamed rice and green onions," Carabajal said.

*

Michael Wagner, proprietor of Andrea's Seafood in Ventura, said the ever-versatile white sea bass retains its moisture well and is ideal for charcoal grilling, broiling, baking or braising.

But for the health conscious cook--or the cook who hasn't much time--Wagner suggested the following:

"Try something different--microwaving, it's dynamite. It's perfect for those people who are dietary conscious," he said.

Wagner swears by it.

"Use any of the seasoning salts; choose your favorite," he said.

Cover the filets with plastic wrap and cook for five minutes. A tiny amount of butter can also be added.

"There's no smell in the house and it's great. Squeeze on a little fresh lemon juice. Serve with a tossed green salad with an oil and vinegar dressing, and rice pilaf," Wagner suggested. "Save those calories for your German chocolate cake."

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