PORTLAND — Peter Sueltenfuss, executive chef at Grace, recalls that whenever he went fishing with his uncle as a kid, they always threw back any redfish that ended up on their lines.

It was only lobster bait, after all. Redfish just wasn’t in the same league as those staples of the New England table, cod and haddock.

So why is Sueltenfuss pan-searing redfish for his customers this week, offering it as a menu item alongside his other more sophisticated dishes?

Grace, along with 19 other Maine restaurants, is participating in “Out of the Blue,” a special promotion organized by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute that began June 1 and runs through Sunday. Out of the Blue celebrates those lesser-known, under-appreciated species in the ocean that rarely end up on diners’ dinner plates.

Mainers got their first taste of redfish at Harvest on the Harbor last fall, when chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street in Portland prepared it for a hungry crowd that also downed Atlantic pollock tacos and gumbo made with northern shrimp.

Over the winter, a steering committee that included Hayward, other restaurant owners and chefs, five fishermen and several others with an interest in sustainable fishing developed the Out of the Blue program as a follow-up to the Harvest on the Harbor event.

Stop into any of the participating restaurants this week – 15 of them are in Portland – and you’ll find a redfish option on the menu.

Sueltenfuss is making pan-roasted redfish with a spring vegetable fricasse and asparagus veloute. David Connolly, chef at the Old Port Sea Grill in Portland, is offering pan-roasted redfish with asparagus, ramps, fingerling potatoes and shallot-orange poppy vinaigrette.

David Ross, chef/owner of 50 Local in Kennebunk, is preparing pan-roasted redfish with a spring-style cassoulet.

Browne Trading Market on Portland’s Commercial Street is serving a New England-style redfish chowder, and chef Christopher Bassett at Azure Cafe in Freeport will be making a polenta-encrusted Acadian redfish fillet served over garlic creamed kale, fresh tomato and chives.

And Hayward? He said he’ll likely serve it in a variety of ways – roasted whole in Fore Street’s wood-burning oven one evening; sliced raw and served chilled as an appetizer the next.

Customers who order the redfish options will be given a small card that tells them a little about the Out of the Blue program. They can scan the card with their smart phone to go to the Out of the Blue website (gmri.org) and learn more.

Redfish is harvested year round in the Gulf of Maine, but spring and early summer is when the season really heats up for local fishermen, said Sam Grimley, sustainable seafood project manager at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

“We thought it was a nice one to do, to kind of kick off the summer,” he said.

DIFFICULT TO PROCESS

Redfish live in the deep waters of the Gulf of Maine. They were a prized source of protein in the 1940s and ’50s, but in 2010, fishermen harvested just 22 percent of the total allowable catch. Much of that was used as lobster bait.

“Because there isn’t as much demand, the price is relatively low for what fishermen get paid for it,” Grimley said. “And it is also a difficult fish to process. It’s a smaller fish than a cod or a haddock, and because right now it has a relatively low value, not a lot of money goes into processing it. If the demand were higher, we’re hypothesizing that processing would come around.”

Out of the Blue is designed to increase the demand for redfish and other species that will be highlighted during similar promotions in July, September, October, November and a final promotion early next year. The idea is that making Mainers more familiar with these more abundant fish could take some of the pressure off species that are being overfished.

Species that will be highlighted during each promotion won’t be announced until the last minute, but the list will likely include mackerel, Atlantic pollock and northern shrimp.

Sueltenfuss said he served redfish when he was cooking in Boston, but this will be the first time he’s put it on the menu at Grace. He said he would serve it more often if it were more available locally.

“It’s definitely affordable, and where a lot of the other well-known fish – tuna, swordfish, halibut – are very expensive right now, it’s nice for us to be able to have a dish that we can keep at a low price point.”

Redfish had been selling for about $2.95 per pound, but the price last week went up to $5.95 per pound, thanks in part to the busier season and the increased interest of the restaurants.

Sueltenfuss says redfish has a mild, neutral flavor that goes well with just about anything. “It does have quite a few pinbones, so it can be time consuming to get all the bones out of it,” he said. “But it’s no more or less difficult, really, than any other small fish that we’re going to fillet.”

While pomace oil heated in a cast-iron skillet, Sueltenfuss scored the skin of a 6- to 7-ounce redfish fillet he bought from Harbor Fish so it wouldn’t curl up when it hit the hot oil. It was an unusually large fillet for a redfish; the chef says he’ll serve two when they’re smaller.

He dropped the fillet in the hot oil and watched it sizzle. Pan-searing, he said, “gets the skin nice and crispy.”

“It kind of helps to keep the fish moist,” Sueltenfuss said. “I’ve messed around with it a little bit at home, outside on the grill, and I’ve found that putting it on something before you put it on the grill is a better way to go. It definitely sticks to the grill relatively easily. What I was doing was taking a bunch of spring onion tops and putting those down on the grill first, and then putting the fish on top of that, and that kind of steams through so you get some of that sweet onion flavor.”

Cooking takes five to six minutes in the pan, Sueltenfuss said, with 85 percent of the cooking time on the skin side. To finish cooking the cut side of the fillet, he melted butter on the side of the skillet, then added some lemon juice and basted the fish with the hot, frothy liquid.

When it was done, he set the fish aside and sauteed some ramp bottoms in the skillet. Then he added a handful of mousseron mushrooms, a mushroom variety imported from Europe.

“They’re really sweet,” Sueltenfuss said. “They have a mild, earthy flavor to them.”

Next, he added English peas and fava beans, then the ramp tops, which were cooked until they wilted.

“We use the (redfish) bones to make a fish stock, which we turn into a veloute,” Sueltenfuss said. “Then we puree some asparagus scrap into that and serve it with spears of local asparagus.”

Sueltenfuss said he is “really excited” about the Out of the Blue promotion that will likely feature mackerel, another fish that’s usually regarded as worthless except as a bait. Mackerel can be a real challenge for a chef. If it’s not prepared correctly, it can turn into an oily mess.

“It’s one of my favorite fish to eat,” Sueltenfuss said. “It’s delicious. I love fishing for it, I love eating it. It’s always an exciting challenge when you know going into something that it’s not a hot seller, and try to figure out the best way to sell it. And when you run into those nights where you sell 15 to 20 orders, it’s a really gratifying feeling.”

SUCCESS ELSEWHERE

Out of the Blue-style programs have been tried in other parts of the country, including the mid-Atlantic, with some success.

“There’s a species of fish called jumping mullet down there, which kind of has the reputation of being a bait fish that recreational fishermen would use,” Grimley said. “They started serving it through a community-supported fishery, and it gained some popularity through that, and then some of the restaurants came on board and they’ve begun to try serving it.

“There’s areas where they’ve tried to serve dogfish, and it hasn’t really caught on,” he said. “I think probably the most well-known example would be monkfish. Back in the day, Julia Child talked about it on her TV show, and at the time it was kind of considered a trash fish here. When she showed it on TV, and showed how to prepare it, it really took off and really developed a strong market.”

The Out of the Blue program is funded by a Saltonstall-Kennedy grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service that runs out at the end of the year.

“I would love to see this program continue,” Grimley said, “and kind of expand regionally and focus on other species.”

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: mgoad@pressherald.com

Twitter: MeredithGoad