It’s a damn good thing bluefish aren’t delicious.
At least, they’re not delicious most of the time. A bluefish has to be treated just so, or it degenerates into a pile of nasty, oily, fish flesh in record time.
A science aside: there are two reasons for this. One is good old oxidation, in which the myoglobin in fish fat goes rancid when it’s exposed to air. Bluefish have more myoglobin than just about any fish but mackerel, and so are particularly susceptible. But the second reason is the one your nose picks up right away. Bluefish have a compound called trimethylamine oxide (TMAO), which acts as a kind of antifreeze. Once air gets to it, it becomes plain old trimethylamine (TMA). That’s the rotten-fish chemical, and gives off one of the most unappetizing smells ever to grace something ostensibly edible.
(If you’re wondering how I got to be the world’s leading expert on bluefish chemistry, it’s because I wrote a piece about it for the Washington Post, which you can read if you, too, would like to be the world’s leading expert. I’m happy to share the title.)
Handling a bluefish to make sure those things don’t happen is straightforward, and not difficult. You bleed it (because hemoglobin is close kin to myoglobin, and facilitates oxidation), ice it (because everything degrades more slowly when it’s cold), and then you wait.
You know those stories about your grandmother, or someone else’s, who didn’t go into the field and pick the sweet corn until the water was boiling? That’s what bluefish is like. Because air triggers both oxidation and the TMAO-to-TMA conversion, you don’t fillet that fish until the grill is hot, or until the brine or marinade (which prevent air from hitting flesh) is made.
The reason most people don’t like bluefish is that most bluefish haven’t been handled that way. In order to get a bluefish worth eating, you have to either A) catch it yourself and handle it that way or B) get it from someone – friend or fishmonger – who can vouch for its having been handled that way.
If you don’t care much for bluefish – and you probably don’t – I’d put money on it that you’ve never had a bluefish that has been handled that way. Just so. Bled, iced, and filleted at the very last minute.
But I’m OK with that. It is because so many people don’t like bluefish that there are so many left for me. Lots of fine fish species are overfished, even to the point of endangerment, because diners just can’t get enough of them. The bluefish fishery, though, is just fine. It’s not even in shouting distance of endangerment, for the simple reason that most people think bluefish are icky. So Kevin and I can have as many as we want (up to the daily limit of ten per angler, of course). Yesterday, we caught eight.
We happen to live in a place that has world-class fishing. People come here from all over to fish for striped bass, and tuna, and even less exciting fish like fluke and scup. And I love all that. But it may be that bluefish fishing is my favorite.
It’s a sentimental favorite, I think. Sure, I love bluefish and I love any kind of fishing that has a very high likelihood of success. But it’s the combination of being on the boat, in the sun, with my husband, without the Internet, trolling around Horseshoe Shoal catching dinner, that gets me.
People around here talk about that kind of fishing as a last-resort activity. It’s what you do when you can’t find any other, better fish. But some of my best days on Cape Cod have been days I’ve spent doing just that.
Seven of the eight fish (they averaged about five pounds each) are brining, and Kevin will smoke them this evening. The eighth, we ate.
After spending most of the day fishing, and most of the rest of it filleting fish and cleaning the boat, you’re unlikely to want to make a big, fancy dinner. Kevin grilled the fish, plain, and I made a vegetable mélange to go with it. It was simple and it was good.
Bluefish with Bacon, Onions, and Tomatoes
1-1 ½ pounds bluefish fillets (or, really, any other fish you happen to have)
olive oil to brush on fish
3-4 strips bacon
2 large or 3 medium onions, sliced not too thinly
3 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
1/3 cup chopped Thai basil (or regular basil, if that’s what you have)
salt to taste
Make a charcoal fire in the grill, and wait for the heat to die down a bit. We like to cook bluefish for a longer time over lower heat. Brush the bluefish filets with olive oil, and grill,turning once, until just cooked through. Timing depends on your fish and your grill. It was about 20 minutes for us.
At about the same time you light the fire, put the bacon in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook it, turning occasionally, until it is cooked but not crispy. Remove it, blot it, and chop it coarsely.
Drain most of the bacon fat out of the pan, leaving enough to sauté the onions in. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until they begin to wilt. We’re not going for caramelized here, just softened with a few brown bits.
When the onions are soft and beginning to brown, turn the heat to high and add the chopped bacon, tomatoes, and basil. Cook, stirring often, just until the tomatoes begin to break down, about 3-5 minutes. Serve with the bluefish.