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Wednesday, June 14, 2017


I spent many lazy summer afternoons fishing from the rocky banks of Barren River Lake in Western Kentucky. When my family settled in with my grandparents on their rural Kentucky farm, the lake was practically brand spanking new. For thirty years, my grandfather's farm hugged the banks of the Barren River. His farmhouse was situated on the highlands amid cleared fields and meadows. The remaining part of the farm, thick with trees and brush, dipped down to the river at rugged steep inclines. A few years before we moved to Kentucky, the United States Corps of Engineers built an earthen dam next to his farm to create Barren River Lake. In doing so, the lake swallowed half of my grandfather's land, leaving the farm with direct access to wooded sleepy coves overlooking the placid bluish green water.

The lake was my playground. As a transplanted outsider, I took refuge by the water. During summer breaks, when I wasn't frog gigging with my brother or getting into mischief, I'd meander down to the lake and fish. Swelled by high summer water levels, the lake was the ultimate fishing hole.  Armed with a bamboo cane pole (not kidding), a plastic bobber,  and a bucket of earthworms , I was a master catcher of tiny crappie and bluegill. Too small to keep or fuss over, chasing those feisty little fish piqued my interest as I wiled away the hours. On occasion, I'd mosey over to the wider sections of the coves that opened up to the vastness of the lake. The rugged points jutted out and straight down into the water like prehistoric stepping stones. Covered with mossy plankton, those sunken nooks and crannies were prime feeding grounds for the smallmouth bass that gathered in and around the rocky out-croppings. On lucky days, I'd snag enough  bass to tote home in hopes of a summer cookout or fish fry. Boyish folly. Although  I don't fish much anymore, I'm still a fisherman at heart. Nowadays, I let others do the catching.

Plank Grilled Whole Black Bass, Baby Fennel, And Candy Onions with Italian Salsa Verde

Salsa Verde.
Unlike the piquant tomatillo based Mexican salsa verde, Italian salsa verde is an herb forward vinaigrette used as a finishing sauce. After combining 4 teaspoons minced fresh oregano, 6 tablespoons minced fresh parsley, 2 cloves smashed garlic, 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, salt, cracked black pepper, and 1/4 cup tear drop peppers, I added 1/2 cup extra virgin olive, gave it a quick stir, and set it aside.

While most any untreated wooden plank would work on an outdoor grill, cedar planks are widely available. Prior to firing up the grill, I soaked a large cedar plank in water for 2 hours, weighing it down with a plate to keep it submerged. When the coals reached the optimum burning point, I raked them to one side of the grill to create two areas of heat. I placed the plank over the cooler side of the grill for 3 minutes, pulled it from the heat, and brushed it vegetable oil.

After rinsing two 3/4 pound scaled, cleaned, and gutted whole black bass under cold running water, I stuffed each cavity with fresh lemon, sprigs of thyme, parsley, and fresh oregano. For good measure, I slipped 1/2 slice fresh lemon into the gills before rubbing the fish with olive oil, salt, and cracked black pepper. After placing the seasoned black bass on the cedar plank, I tucked blanched and quartered Stonehedge Farm baby fennel, purple cauliflower florets, and halved  Pulaski County purple candy onions around the fish. I slid the plank onto the cooler side of the grill,  brushed the vegetables with olive oil, closed the lid, vented the hood, and let it rip for 30 minutes, turning the vegetables from time to time.

When the internal temperature of the bass reached 125 degrees, I pulled the plank from the grill, spooned the salsa verde over the cooked fish, and showered everything with sea salt before finishing with crisped slivered scallions.

Kissed with indirect heat, the flaky bass, caramelized fennel, and softened candy onions absorbed the subtle smoky char from the cedar, balancing the herbaceous punch of the bright vinaigrette. While the tiny peppers added pops of heat, the tangled scallions provided grassy wet crunch.


Go ahead, fire up a grill
and walk the plank.

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