It may seem unusual a fish dish would induce nostalgia, but it’s a seasonal experience for me. Unlike the ice cream sundaes, clambakes, barbecues and hamburgers that say summer to most Americans, my most evocative dish is Long Island striped bass in a lavish preparation that honors my late grandmother, the accomplished baker, cook and author, Paula Peck.
Although I never knew her, I keep learning about her through her recipes and writings. No recipe has accomplished this better than this seafood dish, which has become a seasonal family tradition, especially now when I visit my father, Charles Peck, in Southold. Each summer, as striped bass season kicks into full gear, I search for Striped Bass Plaki, a recipe in The Art of Good Cooking, published by my grandmother in 1961 and lesser known than her other book, The Art of Fine Baking. The back cover of my beloved copy reminds me of her success as attested to by her good friends and colleagues James Beard and Craig Claiborne, who agreed Paula was “one of the most inventive, imaginative and dedicated cooks.”
The pursuit of the highest quality, freshest ingredients was instilled in my father when he accompanied her to the fish market. She would demand the freshest whole fish, checking for clear eyes, crimson blood at the gills and a bright sea smell. Later, when my father moved to the North Fork, I discovered the diverse and exquisite fresh seafood of the Peconic Bay. I, too, had the same expectations as my grandmother and began following her tips religiously.
My father remembers Striped Bass Plaki as one his mother’s favorites, which she served on birthdays and special occasions. Normally prepared whole, the bass is stuffed with a savory mixture of scallions, basil and oregano. Slices of lemon, onion and tomato are shingled across the top. The fish is then roasted in a bath of white wine and olive oil; shellfish, such as clams, mussels, scallops, and shrimp, are added throughout the cooking process. My father recalls my grandmother smiling as she proudly came to the dinner table with the epic dish, temptingly presented on a handsome white oval ceramic dish and, in classic Paula Peck style, garnished with bright green sprigs of parsley. My grandmother and grandfather, Jim, would delve into the striped bass, which was enveloped in a fragrant white wine sauce, while my father and my uncle, Sam, would fight over the shellfish.
Each summer, my father and I revisit this crowd-pleaser. My family makes a point to eat sustainably, and the Peconic Bay has a wealth of fresh seafood easily caught by novice fishermen and seafood lovers alike. In the past, we’ve followed this recipe to a T, adding just clams, mussels, scallops and shrimp. However, in the interest of eating locally, we have made some slight modifications. My father participates in the Southold Project in Aquaculture Training, a Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County program that focuses on restoring shellfish to the bays; fresh oysters are easy to come by and are the perfect replacement for shrimp, which are often farmed and usually from China or Vietnam—far from local. A new family favorite, though, is to use blue crab and whelk. Both are local staples. Whelk, or scungilli in Italian, is lesser known here in the U.S., where we’re more squeamish about eating snail-like creatures with chewy textures. As an addition to a dish with so much fresh seafood, the intricate spiral shells are a striking contrast my grandmother would appreciate and another morsel my father and uncle could fight over.
Each year I am grounded by my grandmother’s simple culinary style based on a few ingredients that allow the freshness and quality of the fish to shine through. The types of seafood may be ever changing, but the integrity of her recipes and elegant presentation remain timeless. As Paula Peck writes in her book, “This is one of the best fish dishes I know.”