Not all fish are created equal in the eyes of fisherman, says Hank Shaw, the author of the book Hunt, Gather, Cook. Flounder and cod may be delicious to eat, but they’re lifeless and boring when caught. Now, bluefish — that’s a different story.
Not only are bluefish fun to catch, they can also make for great eating. They might get a bad rap for being too fishy tasting, but that’s simply a matter of freshness and preparation. Bluefish are currently in season, and the waters around the Tri-State area provide ample opportunities to catch one.
“It’s like pulling a pony,” explained Shaw, who also blogs at his Web site Hunter, Angler, Gardner, Cook. “I mean, you know, if you hook a 20-pound bluefish, this thing’s taking you for a ride. It’s going to pull on the line, it’s going to make crazy runs.”
Bluefish are also easy to catch, since they travel in large schools. Their feeding frenzies (like this one) are a relatively common occurrence. And since they are “slash and burn” feeders, Shaw says one way to locate a school of bluefish is to look for birds scavenging off their scraps.
Another element of excitement in hooking a bluefish is the potential for danger.
“Well, if you’ve ever seen one that’s live,” Shaw said, “they have a under-slung lower jaw, and it’s full of nasty sharp teeth.”
He notes that bat day at Yankee stadium is a particularly popular event with Mid-Atlantic fisherman. He jokes that small souvenir bats given out at those games can be crucial tools for catching bluefish.
“When that fish comes overboard, if you don’t hit him, and you try and take that lure out of his mouth, you’re going to lose a thumb,” said Shaw. “And they’re mean, and they’ll come after you.”
While bluefish are easy and entertaining to catch, they do need to be eaten immediately or they start to break down and develop a fishy taste. Since the enzymes in their digestive system are really strong, Shaw says they need to be bled and cleaned immediately.
“Bluefish is one of those fish like herring or mackerel that goes off in a heartbeat,” he explained. “It does not freeze well. If you have ever had frozen bluefish, it turns to mush, and it’s not even very good for fishcakes.”
Shaw also recommends trying bluefish at reputable restaurants first, if in doubt. Professional chefs generally get the freshest fish, and know the best ways to prepare them.
For the home cook, though, he recommends not serving a section of the fillet he calls the “bloodline,” which is the muscle that the fish uses to swim long distances.
“It is the line of very, very red, very, very fishy meat down the center of the fillet,” he said. “And some people like it. And it’s not so bad if it’s really, really fresh. Like, you know, you caught it that day. But it gets fishy, fishy bad in a hurry.”
Bluefish is also simply an inexpensive fish with character — as opposed to tilapia, which Shaw detests.
“I just hate that fish,” he admitted. “It’s a fish that’s fed corn pellets. It doesn’t taste like anything. It’s soft, it’s flabby. It’s only as good as the sauce you put on it.”
With a little time, education, and care — and perhaps a new marketing campaign — it’s entirely possible that bluefish might overcome its reputation to be loved by both fisherman and diners.
Below, try Shaw’s recipe for smoked bluefish, as adapted from a recipe for smoked shad.
by Hank Shaw
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 2 quarts water
- 1/2 cup salt
- 2 quarts water
- 1/2 cup maple syrup
- 1 chopped onion
- 3 smashed garlic cloves
- Juice of a lemon
- 1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- 2-3 crushed dried hot chiles
- 5 bay leaves
- 2 cloves
- 1 teaspoon crushed coriander seeds
Mix the first brine together and soak the bluefish fillets in it for 30 minutes, then drain.
Meanwhile, bring the second brine to a simmer, stir well to combine and turn off the heat. Set this in a drafty or cool place to chill it down fast.
When the second brine is cool, pour it over the bluefish and brine for 1-2 hours.
Drain and rinse off the fillets, then pat dry with a towel. Air dry in a drafty place — use a fan if need be — for 2-3 hours, or until the meat looks a bit shiny. This is an important step; you are creating a sort of a second skin called a pellicle that is necessary to seal the fillets. If you skip this step, you will have problems with the proteins leaking out from between the flakes of the meat, forming a white icky stuff that will need to be scraped off.
Smoke over hardwoods for 1-3 hours, depending on the heat. You want the bluefish to slowly collect smoke, and cook very slowly. Under no circumstances do you want the heat to get above 180 degrees.
Remove and let cool at room temperature before packing away in the fridge or freezer.