There's Nothing Hard About Cooking Rockfish

Sorry I asked. All I wanted was a simple definition of rockfish. What I got was enough information to make my head swim like an aquarium full of guppies.

In "Fish, The Basics," Shirley King writes that she would need a separate volume to describe all 65 species of rockfish harvested from southern California to Alaska.

Dave Morrison, manager of Jack's Fish Spot at the Pike Place Market, confirms that many types of rockfish are marketed locally, and the red-skinned varieties often are sold interchangeably with snapper.

Rockfish species sometimes are named for their colorful markings, including black rockfish and yelloweye rockfish. Another common species here is the quillback rockfish. Morrison says these fish live in and near rocky areas from shallow water down to about 130 feet. Most of the fish is trawl-caught, but the more expensive species often are caught with hook and line.

Below the Mason-Dixon Line, striped bass are known as rockfish. West Coast rockfish are in the same fish family as Atlantic Ocean perch and Pacific Ocean perch. Atlantic varieties include rock cod, rock sea bass and grouper. Pacific Ocean perch can be called snapper in California, Oregon and Washington, although they're not related to the red snapper caught off the coast of Florida.

Marketing consultant Jon Rowley of FishWorks! says Chinese cooks are partial to the China rockfish, a small coal black species with a brilliant yellow stripe, and to the quillback. Both are favorites for steaming. The Japanese favor the yelloweye for sashimi. Rowley says the channel rockfish, also known as the short spined horny head, is a delicious species with a brilliant rose color that seldom is seen at local markets because most of the catch is exported to Japan.

Enough with the genealogy. These slippery characters are creating one confusing kettle of fish. What's most important is that rockfish fillets are among the most reasonably priced (usually under $4 a pound and often under $3 a pound) and most versatile seafood choices for the home cook, as today's recipes illustrate (page D 2).

Rockfish can have a gruff exterior - with heavily armored gill covers, large heads and spiny fins - but what's inside counts. Some have firmer flesh than others, but generally it's a lean fish with a fine flakiness and delicate flavor that pairs well with most any kind of sauce.

Try fillets steamed with hoisin and spinach, stewed with Mexican ingredients, baked with a ginger and lime sauce, cooked in parchment paper with lemon and herbs and broiled with a honey-mustard topping.

Rockfish is so low in fat (about 7 grams a pound) you can afford some flavorful ingredients to accentuate the positive. All of today's recipes are under 255 calories per serving.