Time for weakfish on Shelter Island

weakfish skillet

A preheated iron skillet in a hot oven produces a perfectly cooked fillet of weakfish. (Credit: Charity Robey)

To April I say, good riddance. I’m trying not to take it personally, but really what was that stuff that fell from the skies on April 8, like one of the Biblical plagues of Exodus — Sleet? Locusts? Thank goodness the lilac is starting to bloom which means I am about to be treated very well, and I don’t mean Mother’s Day. I’m talking weakfish.

Every year these slim, silvery, spotted fish with yellow fins swim up the Atlantic coast from Florida to New England starting in April. As they pass the East End of Long Island, they are met by an army of anglers, backed by salivating cooks with iron skillets, oiling them up for the feast.

You can buy weakfish at Southold Fish Market, and other local markets in May and June, but for avid surfcasters like Adam Flax of East Hampton, there is no substitute for catching your own dinner.

“Unlike bluefish or striped bass, weakfish have a very soft mouth,” he said. “It’s easy for them to slip off.” Despite their name, they are strong fighters when hooked he said. “They’re not as strong as blues or striped bass, but a large one will put up a battle.”

If you have been removing the skin from your weakfish, or even worse, cooking it skin-side down it’s time to mend your ways. When cooked well, the skin is delicious, and you don’t need breadcrumbs or butter to make it tasty. Think of fish skin as nature’s bacon, doubtful in the good-for-you category, but definitely tasty.

Whether you scale your weakfish yourself, or buy it cleaned check for stray scales by running your fingers over the fillet from tail to head, to ensure that all scales have been removed, especially around the tail and edges of the fillet.

There are two conditions that produce a crispy skin — high heat and dryness. Resist the temptation to give your fillets a bath before cooking them. Wipe them with a paper towel, gently scrape the blunt side of a knife across the skin to remove any remaining moisture, and blot them again with a paper towel. Leave them uncovered while you are preparing to roast them.

Weakfish is a mild, flaky fish, and minimalist’s approach to cooking lets that nutty taste come through; just olive oil, something fragrant and green, and a blast of heat.

Recipe: Roasted Weakfish

Serves 2-3

1 pound fillet of weakfish

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 ounces chopped young garlic, ramps or scallions

Salt

Pepper

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. 

Wipe the fillets with a paper towel, Check to make sure all scales have been removed. Gently scrape the skin with the blunt side of a knife to squeeze out moisture, and blot all over the filet with a paper towel.

Rub 1 tablespoon of olive oil on the filets, concentrating on the meaty side.

Preheat an iron skillet large enough to hold the fillets with space between them. Heat 2 teaspoons of the olive oil in the skillet and sauté the chopped garlic, ramps or scallions for not more than 3 minutes at medium heat.

Position the fillets on top of the garlic, skin side up. If necessary, fold the thin, tail end underneath the rest of the fillet so it won’t overcook. Drizzle the remaining teaspoon of olive oil over the fish.

Roast in the oven at 450° for 7-10 minutes, until the skin is turning up at the edges, and the flesh is beginning to flake.