My favorite fish: updated ranking

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GOOD TASTE: The author, admittedly beefier than he is today, cooks a dinner party in High Bar Harbor a few years ago, including (far right) Oysters Moscow. (Photo courtesy of Vin T. Sparano)

Several years ago I wrote a column called “The Tastiest Fish”. I rated the best fish for the dinner table, which was a dangerous business. I incurred the ire of a few readers who told me that I probably didn’t know anything about cooking fish and that my taste buds had gone south. I also received a bunch of new recipes and now I realize it’s time to update my notes. This time I also recognize oysters, because sometimes I like oysters better than fish.

My oyster fetish probably started in a restaurant in the Florida Keys decades ago. The butler offered us a drink at the bar while we waited for a table. Never one to pass up a very dry Bombay Sapphire martini, my buddies and I headed to the bar. The bartender offered us an aperitif while waiting for our table: Oysters Moscow. I was just beginning my long love affair with oysters, but had never heard of Oysters Moscow. Turns out we never made it to the main course. After several dozen Moscow oysters and a few martinis, we were satisfied.

Moscow oysters are a raw oyster on the half shell with a dollop of sour cream topped with caviar (red, black or both). Served on a bed of crushed ice, it’s a sight to behold and the taste is miraculous. When I returned to New Jersey, I tried ordering Oysters Moscow, but no one had ever heard of it, so I can now claim to have introduced Oysters Moscow to New Jersey.

I thought I knew a lot about oysters until I bought a copy of The Row 34 Cookbook by Jeremy Sewall with Erin Byers Murray. Turns out there’s a history of caviar’s connection to oysters. A wonderful recipe is included in the book for Oysters with Hollandaise Sauce and Caviar. The authors also have a bunch of fish and shellfish recipes that go beyond fried fish. How about Fluke Crudo with Grilled Green Onions or Tuna Crudo with Ginger? If you’re unfamiliar with crudo, it’s an Italian/Spanish version of raw fish with a dressing, usually olive oil and citrus. I will also try some of their intriguing ceviche recipes.

Bluefish, for all the wrong reasons, has gained a reputation in our tristate area for having a strong fishy taste. I like blue fish and I eat everything I can. Avoid those 10 pounds and cut out all the dark red meat in the fillets. I only eat Bluefish under 5 lbs. The authors must agree with me. The book includes a recipe for Baked Blue Fish with Fennel and Spring Garlic. I’m going to try that one with the next bluefish I catch, hopefully a 5 lb.

The Row 34 Cookbook is not a lightweight. It is a 230 page book with beautiful photographs of the recipes. It is published by Rizzoli New York. You can find it on Amazon. But now back to my fish notes. In that first column years ago, here’s how I rated saltwater fish:

No. 1 – hogfish, No. 2 – yellowtail snapper, No. 3 – summer flounder (fluke), No. 4 – grouper, No. 5 – salmon (wild), No. 6 – tripletail, No. 7 – dolphin, No. 8 – yellowfin tuna, No. 9 – cobia, No. 10 – mako shark.

For freshwater fish, my ratings are: #1 – walleye, #2 – black crappie, #3 – rainbow trout, #4 – catfish, #5 – yellow perch.

As we age, everything changes, including our eating habits and taste buds. So I decided to review my list and make some changes.

Here are my new notes:

Hogfish is still #1. It’s a weird but wonderfully flavorful fish, especially breaded and fried in jalapeño. It’s definitely number 1!

Yellowtail snapper is still #2. All snappers taste great, but yellowtail snapper tops the list.

Summer flounder, or fluke, is no longer my #3 fish. Something happened to me or the fish, but they don’t taste as good anymore. My fluke fillets seem to dry out too quickly. I will be working on new recipes. I drop the flounder/fluke down a single notch to #4.

I’m replacing fluke with grouper, the new number 3. Like snappers, all grouper taste great. The 5 to 15 pounds are preferred for the dinner table. Stay away from heavy groupers. Fish biologists say these older fish may have eaten too many smaller fish that feed on toxic algae. There is always a risk of ciguatera poisoning. Ciguatera toxin is harmless to fish but toxic to humans.

I rated salmon #5 last time, but am now removing this one from my list and replacing it with tripletail, which will be the new #5. Maybe because they hide under traps crabs and are difficult to catch, tripletail are excellent feeders. Or maybe because they look so much like black crappie, which are superb to eat. Only wild salmon was on my old list. Farmed salmon is tasteless.

The big surprise is the striped bass, which now makes my list at #6. I didn’t even list it in my old column. At the time, I used to say that striped bass was one of the most bland fish I’ve ever eaten. I have tried several recipes since and found one that works for me. Striped bass now makes my list at #6.

No. 7 always goes to the dolphin. The best recipe is encrusted with coconut, fried and flambéed in the Grand Mariner.

Yellowfin tuna and bluefin tuna still occupy eighth place. But I have to add a disclaimer. The worst thing you can do to fresh tuna is overcook it. The only way to eat tuna is in sushi or coated in black pepper and seared for 10 seconds on each side and served with a mixture of wasabi and soy sauce.

Cobia remains on the list at #9. The beer battered and fried bits are my favorite. Grilling a cobia steak tends to dry it out, but that’s okay if you brush it with teriyaki sauce.

Recent regulations require me to drop the mako shark from the #10 spot. I replace it with wahoo. Do not confuse it with king mackerel. There is a world of difference. Wahoo is a white, firm meat, almost like cobia and striped bass. King mackerel can be fun to catch and a great fighter, but the dark colored meat has no flavor. You can smoke king mackerel, but eating it will leave you with bad breath for days.

So here are my final up-to-date ratings for the tastiest fish:

No. 1 – hogfish, No. 2 – yellowtail snapper, No. 3 – grouper, No. 4 – flounder (fluke), No. 5 – tripletail, No. 6 – striped bass, No. 7 – dolphin, No. 8 – yellowfin tuna, bluefin tuna, No. 9 – cobia, No. 10 – wahoo.

For freshwater species, my ratings remain unchanged.

Here are some fish that will never make it to my list: amberjack, king mackerel, grunt, bonito, pike and pike.

As I said last time, I suspect half the anglers reading this will disagree with my picks. I agree that the preparation and freshness of the fish are critical factors. I also believe that where you eat your fish will make a difference. A jalapeño-fried hogfish at a Florida Keys tiki bar will always taste better than eating it in Paterson, NJ

So what’s your favorite fish for dinner?

wine T.Sparano of Port Monmouth, NJ, was a permanent resident of High Bar Harbor for over 20 years. Its LBI roots go back decades.

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