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All About Pacific Rockfish, or Rock Cod

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An assortment of Pacific rockfish

An assortment of Pacific rockfish

Hank Shaw

Rockfish -- Asian Delight, American Treasure:

Pacific rockfish are the most commmon near-shore fish on North America's West Coast. More than 70 different varieties of this bass-like fish swim around the shorelines down to depths of 300 feet or more.

While there are taste differences in several varieties, all rockfish -- also known as rock cod or Pacific snapper -- are firm, lean, mild-flavored fish.

The main difference between varieties is texture. China cod, a little black variety with a racy-looking yellow stripe along its back, is especially fine-textured and often commands a higher price.

Many customers also like the red ones, such as vermillion or copper rockfish. These are fine fish, but not so different than the more common blacks, browns and olive rockfish.

You will usually find rockfish sold as skinless fillets -- usually misleadingly called "snapper," although rockfish are nowhere near as fine-flavored as real red snapper, which only lives in the Atlantic Ocean.

If you have a skinless fillet, use it in any fillet recipe. Dredged in flour and sauteed, rockfish is excellent. It's also good batter-fried or made into tempura.

Rockfish is also often sold whole, or scaled and gutted. You'll find whole rockfish mostly in Asian markets, but they're being sold this way increasingly in high-end Western markets as well.

If you buy a whole rockfish, I'd advise one of two treatments: Crispy-fry the whole fish in oil, or steam it Asian-style. Each suit this fish perfectly. Crispy-frying takes advantage of rockfish's firmness, while steaming highlights the fish's delicate flavor.

Both of these methods have been perfected by the West's Asian-American community, so look to Asian sources for your inspiration. That's not to say that rockfish aren't great grilled simply and served with lemon and salt the way they do in the Mediterranean.

If you don't want to cook your rockfish whole, but you've bought them that way, fillet the fish out as usual, but keep the heads and bones. The heads and bones of rockfish make fantastic fish stock because they are very lean and clean-tasting.

Rockfish are also good raw in sushi (make sure to freeze it for a few days first), "cooked" by citrus in ceviche or chopped in a tartare.

So, to sum up, The best ways to cook Pacific rockfish are:

  • Crispy-frying whole
  • Steaming whole, Asian-style
  • Dredging in flour and sauteeing in olive oil
  • Batter frying like fish & chips
  • Serving as ceviche by marinating it in citrus

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