My neighborhood fish market has become rather an expensive place to shop: fully half the fish is approaching the $10-a-pound level. Scallops: $7.99. Salmon: $7.99. Swordfish: $7.99. Lobster: $6.59. Even flounder is not cheap: $4.49. Halibut, when it's around, is right up there at $6.19. You don't even see cod or haddock; this in New England, where there were fishermen even before there were permanent settlers.
You can blame this on the New Bedford fishermen's strike, or on anything else you like, but you'd be wrong to do so. What we're looking at here is a classic example of supply and demand, outlined as perfectly as it ever was in Econ 101. Catches of flounder are down sharply, and the stock of cod hurting almost as much. Haddock is the hardest hit: One expert told me recently that the catch was 10 percent of what it was just five years ago, and that the fish was selling, off the boat, for $5 a pound; that translates to $18 fillets.
But Americans as a group are eating more fish. Per capita consumption, according to the yearly study performed by the Department of Commerce's Fishery Statistics Division, rose a half pound in 1984 (the 1985 statistics will not be available until July). Similar increases were reported for many of the previous six years as well; even the lowest official estimates say that we each now eat an average of nearly 14 pounds of fish every year.
Fish stocks, however, are limited. And a good chunk of Georges Bank, one of the world's most fertile fishing grounds -- located between Nova Scotia and Cape Cod -- became part of Canada last year.
Yet Americans continue to eat the same old fish. Flounder. Cod. Scallops. Regardless of price.
There are alternatives. One of these -- almost perpetually in season -- is whiting. Whether the best thing about whiting is its price -- $1.29 a pound, right next to that $8 salmon -- or its taste, I couldn't say. I'd eat it if it were $4 a pound, I know that; there is no sweeter or more tender fish.
Whiting -- officially silver hake -- are slender fish with large eyes and wide mouths containing sharp and readily evident teeth. They're silvery-irridescent when caught -- hence the name -- but turn a muddy grayish-brown all over soon after death (though the belly continues to gleam). The average size is 14 inches, but the fresh fish we see in our markets tend to be somewhat smaller than that; the larger fish go to smokers.
Whiting is also called merluzzo or nasello (Italian), merlu (French), and merluza (Spanish). Its most curious name is frostfish, a name brought about by whiting's peculiar migratory patterns. The fish tends to remain near the shore in summer months, so long as the shallow water is warm. But it cannot tolerate colder temperatures, and moves further and further offshore as temperatures drop. Sometimes, however, a cold snap catches the fish before it reaches deeper waters and freezes it. This "catch" washes ashore, where coastal residents traditionally gather the frostfish at night.
The fact that the whiting is almost always off of our shore, combined with its enormous quantity and low consumer demand, keeps prices low. "Sometimes," says Jim Wallace, a marine resource specialist with the University of Connecticut Sea Grant program, "the fish sells for a nickel-a-pound off the boat." It's just popular enough to keep the fishermen from throwing it back, but not enough to command a good price.
Most whiting sold in this country comes from South America, where it is cleaned, gutted and beheaded, then frozen and shipped to the southern and southwestern states to be sold in 3- or 5-pound boxes. These boxes can be found in New England supermarkets from time to time; five pounds of cleaned, frozen whiting will usually set you back about $3, and will feed five people more than amply. Since it's closely related to the cod, some whiting is also "portioned," that is, used in institutions and fast food operations for breadsticks, fish "burgers," and the like.
Ironically, the whiting is found off the New England coast in greater numbers than any other edible fish. According to Wallace, fishermen could take 154,000 metric tons annually without affecting the viability of the population. "And the quality of the catch," he adds, "is unsurpassed."
So why isn't this sweet, tender fish in more demand? Two major reasons. One, a good one, is that few people know about it. It's considered an "ethnic" fish.
The second reason, though, is that too many people insist on eating fillets. "Whiting can be filleted before cooking," says Wallace, "but only by using a rather complicated J-cut can all the bones be removed." And who's going to perform complicated operations on cheap fish? The beauty of whiting, however, is that it fries up nicely, and the central bone comes out almost effortlessly -- bringing the entire skeleton with it -- once the fish is flattened on your plate.
The best way to prepare whiting is to fry it, either shallow or deep. No formal recipe is needed here. Take whole, cleaned whiting -- head on if they'll fit in your pan, since the fish tends to remain a bit more moist that way -- and dredge them in cornmeal. Or, cut the fish into sections -- those near the tail will be perfectly round, the others somewhat ragged -- and dredge those. Heat some cooking oil in a pan or deep fryer over a medium-high flame, to about 375 degrees. (On no account let the oil smoke.) Cook the fish on both sides (you don't have to turn it in a deep fryer), just until the coating browns. Small fish take fewer than five minutes per side. Serve with parsley and lemon, or on a bed of polenta and spinach. A little practice will enable you to pull out the central bone before you take a bite.
When you're sick of that -- probably several years from now -- you might want to try one of these other recipes. Or substitute whiting (stocked in the Washington area by both Giant and Safeway) for cod in any recipe. WHITING BAKED IN WHITE WINE (2 to 4 servings)
4 whiting, about 1 pound each, cleaned, with heads on
1 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup capers
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to its highest setting -- 550 or so. Place fish in a baking dish, sprinkling all the ingredients over it, making sure that you put some in the fishes' cavities. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until fish flakes when probed with a fork. Don't overcook. Serve at once, pouring pan juices over fish. MERLUZA EN SALSA VERDE (4 to 6 servings)
6 whiting, about one pound each, cleaned and cut into halves or thirds
Juice of 1 lemon
4 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
1/4 cup olive oil
3 or 4 medium potatoes, sliced thin (no more than 1/2 inch
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 cup water, approximately
Salt and pepper to taste
Sprinkle the whiting with the lemon and let stand. In a large pan or casserole, saute' the garlic in the oil over medium-low heat, until lightly browned and puffy. Remove from the pan and add the potato slices. Stir, adding about half a cup of water at first, and more if necessary, until potatoes begin to soften (you may cover the pan briefly to accelerate this process). Add the whiting and continue to cook, shaking the pan occasionally. In a food processor or mortar and pestle, pure'e the garlic with the parsley and bay leaf (you can add a little olive oil or water to make this easier); add this mixture, along with some salt and pepper, to the pan, and continue to cook until the whiting is done.