A few weeks ago, Dean Gold posted a comment on Facebook that caught my eye. Long a champion of local and sustainable products, the chef-owner of Dino, the rustic Italian enoteca in Cleveland Park, was rhapsodizing about a delivery of yellow perch on its way to him. The small fish had been caught in a Chesapeake estuary just the day before.
Although he declared perch’s flesh superb, there was something else he appreciated: “The real treat isn’t simply the sweet, meaty and mild flesh, but the roe [sac] that each fish contains. Much as with shad, the eggs are the best part of the fish. [They are] firm, moist and not fishy in any way.”
Yellow perch start making their way to the Chesapeake Bay’s shallow, estuarial waters in January in preparation for spawning in the spring; hence, the roe sacs. To preserve the spawning stock, Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources limits commercial yellow perch fishing in the upper part of the bay and the Patuxent and Chester rivers to a 48,220-pound quota and a short season: January, February and until March 10 or when the quota is reached, whichever comes first.
That the fish is local, managed, seasonal and of limited supply appeals to chefs.
Dino is one of maybe a dozen Washington area eateries that offer yellow perch. In his post, Gold described how he prepares it: He wraps the roe in bacon, pan-fries it alongside the whole fish and serves the dish with a sage and lemon salsa.
A week prior, Spike Gjerde, of Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen, served a yellow perch course during a guest-chef stint he did in Washington at Rogue 24. He poached the roe whole in bacon fat, browned it a saute pan and then sliced and plated it with a crisped perch fillet, spelt toast and creamy sunchoke puree.
Heretofore I had never thought of yellow perch as a prized local delicacy; all of a sudden two chefs were singing its praises in a week’s time. I always had associated yellow perch with Lake Erie or Midwest fish fries.
Steve Vilnit, whom Gold credits for introducing him to yellow perch, was hired two years ago by Maryland’s DNR to promote the state’s seafood, putting to effective use the 10 years of experience and connections he acquired working in the seafood industry. Now he connects watermen with potential customers.
And he helps the watermen make more money without necessarily having to catch more fish. Yellow perch is an excellent case in point. That the fish is popping up in area restaurants and fish stores is a recent phenomenon that reflects what can happen when effective fishery management and clever marketing come together.
“Yellow perch went from a fishery that was pretty depleted in the ’80s and ’90s, but by changing the way it was harvested, it has rebounded,” says Vilnit.
There was no local demand for the fish; it was being frozen and shipped to the Midwest.
Two years ago, the commercial fishermen were making about $1 a pound, Vilnit says. Now they’re getting closer to $3. (Yellow perch sell at retail for $5 to $8 per pound; their average weight is 8 to 12 ounces each.)
That’s due in large part, though he’s humble about it, to Vilnit’s efforts. He takes chefs, wholesalers and retailers on the water to show them that there is a great, local, managed fish right in their own back yard.
“It’s been a 10-year process to gather data to manage the perch the way we do now,” DNR biologist Paul Piavis said in a phone interview. “In the early 2000s, we added a maximum size limit of 11 inches to the already existing minimum size limit of 81 / 2 inches. That preserves the spawning stock,” he said.
By 2007, the DNR had collected enough data to produce a stock assessment and impose the current quota.
To account for the fish, watermen must call in their catch to the DNR, tag each fish through the mouth and gill with numbered tags supplied by the DNR and sell the fish with its Maryland tag attached.
On a frigid Thursday a couple of weeks ago, Vilnit and I headed out on the Bush River, a Chesapeake estuary 15 miles north of Baltimore, with waterman (and jokester) Tony Conrad and two of his helpers.
Conrad, 37, who has a degree in criminal justice from Towson State University, left the corporate world to pursue his lifelong passion. He and his wife, Andrea, own Conrad’s Crab and Seafood Market in Parkville, near Baltimore, where the couple sell their catch directly.
As it turns out, Conrad was the source of both Gold’s and Gjerde’s perch.
That morning on Conrad’s 25-foot Carolina skiff involved the watermen pulling in 10 of the 27 fyke nets they had set up at various points along the river’s shoreline, emptying them into the boat and sorting the catch. By-catch (such as mud shad, catfish and pumpkinseed) and any yellow perch not between 81 / 2 and 11 inches got thrown back. Sunfish, an invasive species, were kept, to be sliced and frozen for crab bait.
A fyke is a system of nets that compels schooling fish in shallow water to funnel themselves into a tubular net held open with a series of hoops and sealed at one end, like a giant wind sock. (Conrad’s looked about 50 yards long, with hoops about two feet in diameter.) No bait is required and there’s no stress on the fish.
Once each net was emptied and sorted, each fish got tagged, a process Conrad finds irksome.
“It’s one of the dumbest things you’ll ever see: putting the same big tag you put in a rockfish through a tiny yellow perch,” Conrad says. “Plus the public thinks the fish is farm-raised.”
Not surprisingly, Vilnit disagrees, claiming the tag clearly reveals the perch’s local origin and is needed for accountability.
Conrad says you never can predict what a day’s catch will be. (“Each net could have 10 pounds in it or a hundred.”) That day, he filled three 55-pound crates, which we took back to his spotless Parkville market.
Yellow perch are distinctive. They have murky, evergreen skin almost aglow with shimmering gold highlights and oblong bodies marked with six to eight dark, vertical bands.
As Conrad removed the tough scales and then gutted each fish, I asked him to butterfly 10 fish and keep their roe intact, give me 10 sets of fillets plus their frames and leave 10 fish whole. These I took home.
The meat being so fresh and sweet, the less mucking about with it the better, I decided. For the roe, Conrad suggested a basic preparation with bacon. Gjerde and Gold made that connection as well.
I followed that lead and did something similar to the dish at Dino, stuffing bacon-wrapped, seared roe packets into whole fish, baking them and adding lemon juice and herbs to the bacon-y pan drippings for a simple drizzle.
The roe, as Gjerde had indicated, tasted more like sausage than fish. And the flesh, as Gold promised, was superb.
As the size of the perch lends itself to a whole-fish presentation, I fried several of them Asian-style, presenting them with sauteed greens, steamed rice and a warm, mirin-based scallion-ginger sauce, which enhanced the perch’s sweetness.
The fish frames from which slender fillets came fairly demanded to be turned into stock and from there into an elegant, saffron-laced, bouillabaisse-style broth, which I dotted with edamame, concasse (peeled, seeded, chopped) tomatoes, and neat cubes of sweet potato and celery root. I lightly floured perch fillets, sauteed them until golden and stacked four each in the form of a number (#) sign atop wide serving bowls filled with light, colorful soup.
Like Gold and Gjerde, I’m now a yellow perch devotee — just in time to indulge for a week or two before their local season ends.
Do you have perch questions? Hagedorn will field them in today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.