Something Fishy

August 21, 2009 at 7:06 pm Leave a comment

“Let’s say we take an airplane somewhere.” This was a fishing guide named Frank Crescitelli talking, getting around to the subject of bluefish, why it gets a bad rap, why it should not. Crescitelli is from Staten Island, where he has run a boat out of Great Kills Harbor since he was 13. He has been a guide in the city for a dozen years. You can find him online. He can tell a story.

“We fly south,” he continued. “We’re in some beautiful place, the Caribbean. This guy there says he can put us on fish that fight like crazy, that jump all over the place, that grow to like 15 pounds and taste really good.” He paused slightly. You’d be excited, he said, with “this guy telling you how vicious these things are, how you have to be careful of their teeth, how they bite anything, everything. They can take your finger off. They’re big! You’d want to get out there and fish right away.”

Crescitelli was excited now, too. The picture was coming into focus. He sounded like the fisherman in John Hersey’s landmark 1987 book on the subject, “Blues.” “Blues are magnificent animals,” Hersey wrote. “I am very much in awe of the bluefish.” Crescitelli, too. “It’s a great sport fish, a great eating fish,” he went on to explain, but no one wants to say so because they are everywhere, from Florida to Maine, often getting in the way of their more glamorous neighbors, the striped bass. He paused again, then concluded: “Dude, if bluefish was called the Bahamian, I don’t know, whateverfish? If you could only find it up some river in the middle of nowhere, takes three days to get there? It’d be famous.”

This is probably as true for diners as it is for fishermen. Bluefish is not a famous table fish; it is inexpensive and widely available, but you don’t see it in restaurants often, even in this ravaged-ocean, sell-anything era. (Some states have issued advisories limiting its consumption, citing high levels of PCBs in the meat.) The knock on it is it’s oily, it’s “fishy.” Its dark, compact meat is for cats, not fine, upstanding people like us.

How untrue — and demonstrably so, as the following recipes will show!

Some stipulations: Bluefish are mean and ugly, with blunt faces and dead, yellow eyes, not so much angry as uncaring, vicious. No one will ever love them as animals, and this is not an argument for doing so. (Quite the opposite!)

They are a little scary in their blue-green prison gray, with their white bellies and strong tails. They range along the East Coast of the United States like gangsters at the top of the food chain, eating indiscriminately and with great intent. A 1902 guide to “American Food and Game Fishes” declared the bluefish “an animated chopping-machine the business of which is to cut to pieces and otherwise destroy as many fish as possible in a given space of time.” They grow fat and strong on bunker, squid and, cannibalistically, themselves. (They need that strength for winter; when they head south and go offshore they find the tables turned. Come January, off Miami, Mr. Shark in his gray suit feeds on bluefish hard. Maybe we can understand their rage.)

In a movie, bluefish would be characters in a period piece, bully greasers lined up in a schoolyard with bats, ready to put the hurt on some preps.

Yes, well. The preps — the human ones at any rate — have fly-fishing gear now, and the upper hand. Crescitelli can set you up with a long rod, some fly line, a honking big popper on the end of a heavy monofilament leader. And then he’ll put you where the fish are, from Raritan Bay up to the shadows cast by Wall Street; down New York Harbor toward Rockaway Inlet and Jamaica Bay; out along the beaches of Breezy Point, Jacob Riis Park and Far Rockaway. He is a catch-and-release fisherman of the first order, the chairman of the Fishermen’s Conservation Association and as ardent a supporter of fisheries management as you’re likely to find in the New York Bight. He cares about these fellows being around for your children’s children to catch.

Still, he’ll tell you straight once your rod is bent: a fresh-caught bluefish of moderate weight, quickly cleaned and kept on ice, is as fine an eating fish as American waters produce. Alan Davidson, the British seafood don, says much the same in his indispensable “North Atlantic Seafood,” albeit in a different accent: “It does not keep very well,” reads Davidson’s entry for Pomatomus saltatrix, “but, if bought and cooked with dispatch, offers firm flesh of an excellent taste.” Bluefish, in short, is an excellent protein.

Fresh fish — fish with clear eyes and the strong scent of ocean to its flesh — always is. Put your nose right down on that fillet at the market. Take a good look at it. Trust what you smell, what you see. You want a briny scent, flesh that doesn’t appear soft or mushy, with no big open gaps in it. Got that and you’re ready. Buy it (catch it!) and get on home.

Some words about what you’re dealing with: dense meat with an off-white, almost gray hue, the pork shoulder of seafood. Bluefish lends itself to tough treatment: smoking, for instance, or slow-poaching in oil. Fort Defiance, a restaurant down on the flats of Red Hook, in Brooklyn, has lately been serving bluefish potted up as rillettes. Further inland in ­Bedford-Stuyvesant, the chef at fashionable Saraghina has been simmering it down into ragù. The restaurant Hungry Mother, up in Cambridge, Mass., offers local bluefish grilled, with new potatoes, collards, bacon and smoked-tomato jam. Crescitelli likes a simple approach: a pan fry, the fish cut into fingers, then coated in a mixture of salt, pepper and flour; he has had guests mistake the result for red snapper. It can be comparable in flavor to Spanish mackerel.

Here we follow the lead of the celebrated seafood chef Rick Moonen and coat the fish in a heady mixture of mayonnaise and mustard, scent it with thyme, then broil it into a brown and bubbling coat. It’s a divine feed even at room temperature and about the simplest preparation imaginable. You might serve it with white rice and a salad, or with ratatouille and sourdough toast.

Alternatively, you can throw a bunch of fillets on the grill — close to but not on the fire — and roast them through in a smoky bath, Step 1 in a recipe that will result in a kind of seafood pâté, a spread worthy of bragging about, a forgiving appetizer of no great difficulty to make. Fish on!

By SAM SIFTON
New York Times

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Entry filed under: Get Wet, Natural Waterfront, Staten Island. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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