It’s going on two years since I wrote up my much referenced post on the local freshwater fish around here. At the time I had plans to continue on and cover the various ocean fish in the area as well, plus offer up various ways of preparing all the different catch o’ the day that might come your way. Somewhere in there, it all got backburnered – oh, I’ve definitely given you some recipes here and there – particularly a series of different local classics for pejerrey, the first fish on that list, but didn’t even finish that off. Mea culpa. I do promise to get back to it, starting now. First up, a look at an octet of ocean fish, hopefully to sort out some of the confusion of just what’s laying on that bed of ice in front of you. (Some of the photos aren’t great and I may from time to time update this post with better ones as I take them.)
First up, the most ubiquitous of all fish in this country, the merluza – Merluccius hubbsi in Latin terms. The Argentine Hake, not to be confused with the European Hake (Merluccius merluccius), a similar, but bluntly, higher quality fish of the Mediterranean that’s much used particularly in Basque cuisine. Nor to be confused with the merluza negra here, a completely unrelated species of fish that we commonly call Chilean Sea Bass. This fish, one of several in the family, exists only along the Argentine, Uruguayan and southern Brazilian coast, with its concentration found off the coast of Patagonia and stretching to the Falklands/Malvinas. It’s a very neutral tasting white fish, easy to cook with and very forgiving. It tends to be the cheapest offering a lot of the time and even when other fish are hard to come by you can almost always count on its availability. The fish can grow to about 95cm/3ft, and weigh in at up to 5kg/11lb, though most of what we see tend to be far smaller. It’s a fish I tend to toss into fish stews and chowders where it’s mixed in with other varieties and shellfish, it almost provides more texture than it does flavor.
The mero – Acanthistius brasilianus (or braziliamis) is the Brazilian or Argentine Sea Bass and is a rather pretty member of the Grouper family that covers some other sea basses, groupers and wirrahs. It’s a firm-fleshed whitefish that’s popular here in Peruvian restaurants for ceviche, it also makes for a great grilling or pan-roasting fish as its fillets tend to be thicker and firm enough to stand up to that sort of cooking. I also find it easy to work with, the spines are quite simple to remove and not numerous, the skin is easy to scale and grills up nice and crisp if you like to leave it on. It’s easily one of my favorite local fish to use when I want a good whitefish. The mero can grow to about 60cm/2ft. It’s distribution runs, again, from the southern Brazilian coast down to Patagonia in the Atlantic, though tends to be closer in to the shoreline, almost more of a brackish water fish.
These are besugo – Pagrus pagrus, what we would call a Red Porgy or Common Seabream. Although typically running only about 50cm/20in, they can grow to nearly double that. Distribution is along both Atlantic costs from northern Argentina on up to the Caribbean and similar latitudes on the west African coast on up to the southern reaches of the Mediterranean. It’s a pink-fleshed fish with a delicate flavor that’s similar to a red snapper – in fact, in some markets in the north it’s sold as white snapper, though it’s an unrelated fish. I find that this fish is great when baked – my favorite way is to enclose it in baking paper or foil with citrus or wine, herbs and butter and cook it until it’s just barely cooked through. It also makes for great sashimi and sushi, though there are few places here in BA that serve it.
This unattractive specimen is a corvina rubia – Micropogonias furnieri, a White-Mouthed Croaker, a mud and sand bottom dwelling coastal fish that is abundant in the waters around Argentina and Uruguay, with a range that continues on up the Atlantic as far as Costa Rica. Typically about 45cm/1.5ft, it may grow to around 60cm/2ft. It’s a fairly important food fish as things go, though I tend to find that it has a slightly muddy and fishy taste and am usually not overly fond of it. It’s not bad grilled with some olive oil and lemon. We’ll see, as I get into exploring some of the classic recipes perhaps I’ll find a way that I like it better.
While in the same fish family, the corvina negra – Pogonias cromis, or Black Drum, is a quite different fish. First off, though most typically similar sized, it can grow much larger and can come in as big as 170cm/5.5ft and weighing in around 50kg/110lb. It has a very small distribution, pretty much just found in two places – the northern Caribbean, particularly around the Florida Keys, and the northern coast of Argentina (with a very small population off the coast of Nova Scotia as well). Although also a mud dwelling fish its diet tends more towards crustaceans than the more insectivore rubia above and I think it has a little milder flavor. It’s still not a favorite, and in terms of cooking I pretty much treat them equally. We shall see…. and I have to get a better picture of both corvinas.
The chernia, or mero chernia in Uruguay - Polyprion americanus is called the American, or Atlantic Wreckfish, and sometimes the Stone Bass in English. It’s a fairly large fish and while the most common run around 80cm/2.6ft, they can come in in excess of 200cm/6.5ft and more than 100kg/220lb. They’ve got a wide distribution, throughout the Atlantic and also the Indian Ocean. They’re important as a game/sport fish and they’re quite delicious. A white meat fish with thick fillets and, given the size, a surprisingly delicate flavor, they’re great broiled, steamed, baked, grilled – pretty much anyway you might want to cook them. We like to use them in a classic Peruvian sudado and also just as simple broiled fillet with some vegetables. I do tend to find they have a lot of fiddly bones that need to be pulled out as they have a little “Y” shaped ending that anchors them in – a bit of a pain to work with.
Ahh, the palometa, or atún del Mar del Plata – Parona signata, in English a variety of names – the Parona leatherjack, Parona leatherjacket, Australian queenfish – the same family as pompano and pomfret, though a different genus and species. Distributed along pretty much just the Argentine coastline (which makes one wonder how it got an English name of Australian queenfish), it is euphemistically referred to in many fish markets as “Mar del Plata tuna”. There’s not even a remote connection to the tuna family, it’s closer to the mackerels, if anything. This is a dark, meaty fish that’s typically around 40cm/1.3ft in length or smaller. They’re easy to fillet, have few bones that stick into the flesh, and they’re, to a certain extent, an acquired, strong taste – kind of like bluefish in North America. My favorite way to serve them is with a fairly strong flavored topping – breadcrumbs, olives, chilies, bacon, garlic, and parmesan – broiled and served over a rich medley of sauteed mushrooms and small Andean or new potatoes.
And rounding out today’s eight little fish, another that has little connection to its name – the salmón blanco – Pseudopercis semifasciata – the Argentine, or Brazilian, Sandperch. This is not a “white salmon” as the name would imply, though looking at this big lug you can see why someone might connect it to the classic salmon. It’s distributed along the western Atlantic from mid-Brazil to mid-Argentina and is a big, meaty whitefish that yields thick fillets or, most commonly here, cut into steaks for grilling, a technique to which it stands up well. Typically running around 60cm/2ft in length they often are larger, up to around 100cm/3.2ft and at that size can weigh in at 10kg/22lb. The flesh is, in some ways, reminiscent of salmon, with a slight fattiness, and despite the false connection we’ve paired them up as a duo of salmons on more than one dish. The meat takes well to being marinated and then grilled as a kebab or steak – a favorite marinade is a blend of soy sauce, triple sec and a mild to medium hot, smoky chili like the Chilean merkén or Mexican chipotle.
And that rounds out our first eight little fishes up to the plate. More coming soon.