Among those who dearly love a feast of fish, the common pompano of the south Atlantic coast is comparable in gastronomic status to the Dover sole and the turbot. Even people who don't like fish often like pompano, provided it is fresh-caught and worthily prepared. The pompano is, furthermore, a gamefish, a tumbling, twisting fighter with a dazzling, confusing variety of tricks, a delight to tangle with on light tackle.
The pompano swims in schools as far north as Chesapeake Bay, in the Florida Keys, along the Gulf Coast, in the Bahamas and Bermuda. It takes lures (bright nylon or feather jigs) about as readily as bait (sand fleas and shrimp). Since its average size is a mere two pounds—which is about the best eating size—ordinary surf tackle is just too much to bring out its fine fighting qualities: a so-called fresh-water spinning rod is ideal. It will be thoroughly taxed from the first smashing strike. So will the angler's wrist. Wading the surf and casting to the pompano with a fly rod is the ultimate in angling pleasure.
With its sides of bright blue and gleaming silver and its curious shape, the pompano is one of Neptune's beauties. But it is the palate that appreciates it most. So delectable is the pompano that restaurants generally pay more and charge more for this fish than for any other caught in American waters.
All fish are best when eaten fresh, but for the pompano freshness is all-important. Its slightly oily flesh—it is a distant cousin to the mackerel—is delicately flavored and firm to the tooth when a few hours out of the water, but even with good refrigeration these qualities deteriorate rapidly. A day-old pompano is not half so good as one caught in the morning and served at lunch.
There are many ways to cook a pompano, ranging from the very simplest—broiled—to such elaborate preparations as pompano en papillote, in which the fish is cooked in a brown paper bag or cooking parchment with a variety of sauces that are "sealed in" with the natural juices of the fish. No such protective device is needed with a truly fresh pompano, but it is such a fine fish that gourmet chefs have been inspired to give it their all. An excellent and easily prepared pompano au vin blanc involves stuffing the pompano with fresh dill, steaming it over a pan of white wine and serving it with mousseline sauce. The pompano may be baked, too, but the all-round favorite is just plain broiled. A fancier presentation, planked pompano, is especially good with a fat two-pounder, but it is, after all, just another way of broiling the fish.
How such a delicacy can be such a fighting fury at the end of a line is a question that has burst in the mind of many a fisherman encountering his first pompano in the surf. The fish often uses the breakers to fool the angler with a possumlike sleep and lets the waves carry it in; then, suddenly, as the undertow comes to its aid, it turns viciously away with a hook-dislodging surge. Like the similarly shaped permit, the pompano uses its broad sides to develop more water resistance by fighting at right angles to the rod tip. You will get few jumps from it. It fights underwater, and if there are rocks or coral about it will scoot for them in the hope of cutting the line. Preventing this on light tackle is often an exciting problem, for the pompano is fast and strong—fast, strong and as sweet a dish as salt water can provide.
1½-pound pompano, whole
4 tablespoons oil or melted butter
Start oven at 450° F. about 10 minutes before you plan to broil the fish. Line shallow pan or dish with foil and place in oven to get very hot. Clean pompano, leaving it whole. Dust with flour and paprika. Put oil or butter into the hot pan. Place fish in pan and broil about 3 inches from tip of flame for 3 to 5 minutes. Turn and broil on second side same length of time. Baste occasionally. Fish is done when a fork pierces the flesh easily. Serves 2.
POMPANO AU VIN BLANC
1½-pound pompano, whole
4 thick slices onion
¾ teaspoon salt
Few sprigs parsley
Dry white wine
Clean pompano and stuff cavity generously with sprigs of fresh dill. In a heavy skillet, one with a lid, place onion slices, salt, peppercorns, parsley and more dill. Place a rack, oiled, over mixture and pour in enough white wine to almost reach rack. Put fish on rack, cover tightly and cook over moderate heat until wine begins to bubble, then simmer gently for about 20 minutes. Fish is tender when fork slides in easily. Serve on warm platter with or without mousseline sauce (½ cup heavy cream, whipped, folded into 1½ cups hollandaise sauce). Serves 2.