By Paula Marcoux.
It happens about once a summer. I meet a local sport fisherman who tells me that he catches tons of bluefish, but never eats the stuff. In fact, the story goes, he can barely give it away. At this point in the conversation, I make vague sympathetic noises like, “Hmm, yes, it can be a bit assertively-flavored…” while I ransack my wallet for a business card or scribble my contact info on the back of last week’s tide chart. I try to convey, without dancing a jig, my willingness to relieve this poor fellow of his unwanted piscine burden.
This coast is blessed with some of the finest briny eating in the world, and as far as I’m concerned, the bluefish, well cared-for, is right up there in the top tier of delicious. But why are so many resistant to its charms? Why this persistent prejudice against Pomatomus saltatrix? Perhaps it’s easy for fishermen to undervalue them because when bluefish are biting there’s just so darn many of them. Or maybe these naysayers had bad experiences at an impressionable age with superannuated, improperly handled, or sluggishly chilled specimens?
It can’t be denied that bluefish is unsurpassed eating only when scrupulously fresh. My most skillful fishing friends either keep fish sparky in a live well on their boats, or bludgeon, bleed, and ice them immediately upon catching; either way, they preserve the rich but delicate flavor of the fish, as well as its structural integrity.
Here on the cooking end, I try to be ready with a strategy or two when that lucky windfall of bluefish comes along. One obvious gambit is the potlatch: invite over some other connoisseurs and go all out, gorging on it grilled, broiled, sautéed, or roasted. Leftovers—promptly chilled, then napped with an herby vinaigrette and garnished with tender-crisp seasonal vegetables—are superb as a big salad lunch the next day.
But for buying more time while showcasing this fish at its best, you can’t beat Strategy II: deploying the smoker. Once smoked, the fillets remain wonderful for a full week if sealed airtight in the fridge. And, although I’m not a fan of freezing fish, the smoked version suffers less from cryogenics than the fresh. While the quality won’t be there for just eating straight up, the frozen article still works fine for concoctions like paté and chowder.
I love smoked bluefish best as an appetizer with rye bread or crackers, maybe a mustard-mayo sauce, some finely sliced red onion, and a sprinkling of fresh parsley or capers.
Paula Marcoux is a food historian and author of Cooking With Fire. She lives in Plymouth. www.TheMagnificentLeaven.com.