Bluefish with bacon, onions, and tomatoes

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.

We even bluefished in a tournament. We didn’t win. (But Suzie Glover took our picture anyway.)

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.

16 people are having a conversation about “Bluefish with bacon, onions, and tomatoes

  1. I thought you had done a “hard-assed empiricist” experiment a while back and decided that the bleeding isn’t necessary?

    • Ahem. Why, yes, I did. And I didn’t find any discernible difference in those that had been bled and those that hadn’t. But that whole hemoglobin argument gives me pause. There’s an actual, genuine scientific reason to bleed, and I’m hesitant to tell other people not to do it. It may be that we found very little difference because of the way we processed the fish — they had no chance to oxidize. Someone who doesn’t process right away might want to take as much anti-oxidizing precautions as possible.

      So, that’s my mealy-mouthed, backtracking, equivocating commitment to my own research.

  2. Now that is a great photograph. And I enjoy that you see this step-sister of popular seafood as merely misunderstood or misused. I hope to try it; but think I’ll wait until I have the New England scenery along with it.

    • Finally got a chance to read that link. It sounds terrific, and I’ve been wondering whether mackerel and bluefish aren’t essentially interchangeable in these preparations. Next time we fish, if I can manage to assemble the ingredients, I’ll give it a go.


      • yuzu will never be found. but, grated ginger and green onions is a perfectly lovely substitute, or just sub lemon for yuzu. daikon in all grocery stores by peppers.

  3. Margaret Vaughn says:

    During all my 22 years on the Cape bluefish was my #1 choice. Always fresh-caught that day.

  4. I have never liked bluefish, though I have tried it many times. I have fallen too often for “you’ll like the way I cook bluefish!”. Now I have to wonder if it’s because of poor bluefish handling/processing? Dilema!

    • Rick, I’m figuring you know people who know their way around a bluefish. It’s definitely possible that you simply don’t care for it. Stranger things have happened.

      It must get irritating, having people constantly insist you’ll like something you just don’t like. I promise not to do it to you.

  5. Stephen,

    Suzie has a way with the camera for sure… notice the composition, the captain so serious as he signs off that the fish was indeed caught within IGFA rules and the gleeful angler so proud of her tiny bluefish.
    Kevin F.

    • Tiny? Tiny??!! That was a six-pound bluefish! Not giant, but definitely not tiny.

      And I should know. I’ve caught plenty of tiny bluefish.

      • Last summer I was determined to become a fisherman. I have caught three, maybe four fish in my life. The biggest fish I ever caught was seven inches long… So I’m terribly impressed! This summer and for all summers in the foreseeable future, my brother is the fisherman and I’m the cook.

  6. For years when I was living in Boston I couldn’t stand bluefish. It was oily and acrid and it left a foul fish stink in my mouth.
    Then I went fishing and caught a blue and within 30 minutes threw it on the grill. It was an entirely different fish–and one that I was happy to catch from then on. But I will never buy one, or order it in a restaurant: those are still in edible
    Thanks for providing the science behind it

  7. One thing I find can really help with the cooking of the “oily” fishes such as Mackerel and Bluefish is to remove some – but not all – of the very dark red meat. Obviously it depends on your preparation, but if you do filet the fish give it a try. And as to bleeding the fish, I don’t have evidence for this but in my experience bleeding the fish simply makes it easier to filet without the chance of blood leaking onto the filets. I find this to be true of all fish including white fleshed fish.

    • Sean — Other experienced fishermen have said the same, so I’m sure you’re right. I don’t generally take out the dark meat of the bluefish until after it’s cooked, but I may start removing some before.

      Thanks for visiting, and commenting. It sounds like you know your way around a fish.

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