When it comes to eating, bluefish is nobody’s favorite. You’ve probably heard some variation of the joke about how to prepare it: fillet it, brine it, and cook it on a plank over a low fire for an hour – then throw away the fish and eat the plank.
When it comes to fishing, though, bluefish are more popular.
We had guests this past weekend, and they left on Tuesday afternoon. Tuesday morning, we went out in Nantucket Sound to see if we couldn’t get some blues to show our friends a good time.
Fish were out there; we saw them. We followed them, we cast into them. We cursed and cajoled them. We did not catch them, and then it was time for Russ and Mylene to leave for the airport.
Kevin and I went out again in the late afternoon, and we struck bluefish. We were right outside the Cotuit cut on the west end of Sampson’s Island, and there they were. They were milling around in small groups, occasionally breaking the surface here or there. Over the course of an hour or so, we landed fourteen fish, about two pounds each.
They’re only two pounds, though, once you get them into the cooler. While they’re still in the water, they’re ten or twelve. Or that’s what you think they must be when they take your lure. These things fight as though their very lives depended on it.
Oh, wait a minute …
Catching bluefish is a grand afternoon’s entertainment, but it’s different from other kinds of entertainment – golf, say, or parasailing – in that it leaves you with a cooler full of a fish that’s nobody’s favorite.
I’ll certainly eat grilled bluefish, and there are ways to bake it (usually involving butter, mustard, and herbs) that make it downright tasty. But, to my mind, the best thing to do with bluefish is to smoke it. The oily, fishy taste that can be a liability when it’s fresh is an asset when it’s smoked; bluefish can handle brine and wood smoke.
The best way to smoke bluefish is – surprise! – with a smoker. We don’t have one, though, so Kevin has rigged our standard-issue Weber kettle grill to stand in. We’re still perfecting our technique, but I think we’re getting there.
I filleted the fish and soaked them in brine for two days. (The brine was one cup of salt, a half cup of sugar, and two tablespoons of lemon juice in a half-gallon of water.) Then we laid them out and let them dry until a pellicle formed.
A pellicle is kind of skin that develops as the fish dries, and it’s supposed to keep in moisture and prevent fats from rising to the surface of the fish (where they’re more likely to spoil). I harbor a suspicion that the importance of the pellicle is an old wives’ tale. One day, back in the Dark Ages, some poor fisherman left his fish out too long before he smoked it, and it came out great. The next time he caught fish, he did it again, but paid more attention and noticed the shiny skin. “Hmmm,” he said to himself, “Do you suppose that shiny skin keeps in moisture and prevents fat from rising to the surface?” And here we are, a thousand years later, still doing it.
If anyone knows about any rigorous double-blind controlled studies that compare pellicled and non-pellicled smoked fish, I would very much appreciate the reference.
Meanwhile, I, like every other fish smoker of the last thousand years, am unwilling to risk a batch of bluefish by disregarding the wisdom of centuries.
Once the pellicle forms, we coat the fish with some cracked black pepper and put it on the jury-rigged smoker
Kevin sets it up by lighting a chimney of charcoal, putting it in a pile at the bottom of the grill, and then adding several handfuls of soaked wood chips. Over that, he puts an aluminum roasting pan with holes cut in it so the fish isn’t exposed to the direct heat of the charcoal.
On go the fish, and he covers the grill and keeps the air flow to a minimum. We put a thermometer through a vent in the top, and try to keep the temperature under 150 degrees. It takes about three hours for the fish to smoke, and about three hours for the fire to die, so it’s a convenient arrangement.
I’m still tweaking the brine – I think it’s a bit too salty – so if anyone has suggestions, please chime in.
And I’m serious about the pellicle research.