A good friend of ours who happens to be a terrific angler has often remarked that we’re foolish to “keep” fish for the table when all we have to do is head for a local market and choose wisely from the iced fish on display. He points out that such seafood is surely a lot cheaper and obtained with a lot less trouble, given the cost of travel and tackle (and boats).
For those who dislike the process of bringing a catch from boat to table or for those whose taste buds are relatively insensitive, that philosophy may work just fine. Not for us. If one treats a catch properly from the time it flops onto the deck until its presentation on the table, the home-caught product should be a couple of notches up from the commercial one in almost every case.
It all begins in the boat or on the beach. Some 15 years back we were fortunate enough to spend seven months on New Zealand’s North Island near Auckland, where I had the chance to talk with a number of recreational and commercial fishers. Because New Zealand markets fish worldwide and manages its resource meticulously, using the modern system of catch shares and marine reserves, everyone we spoke to or fished with was aware of the need to handle the catch carefully. Top prices are paid for commercial catches when fish are “landed” with hook and line, killed with a spike, immersed in brine until fully chilled, and, finally, eviscerated and packed in ice.
Back home on the North Fork, we often fished with the late Lorry Mangan when we were invited on charters aboard the Nancy Ann. She stood out as one of the few American anglers we’d seen who took the trouble to carry a couple of coolers of ice aboard; one contained a slurry of sea water and ice, the other just lots of ice. Except for dispatching fish with a billy instead of an “iki” (a sort of ice pick), she did exactly what the informed Kiwis had done. When we started to do the same, we realized how much we’d been missing over the years, especially with oily fish like bluefish or the mackerels.
Decision-making begins when the happy but exhausted fisher arrives home and processes a catch. If you’re going to freeze fish (again a tip from Lorry and others) best leave the skin on and the fish whole for protection against freezer burn. If you have a really big, industrial-strength freezer you have the luxury of putting fish into brine-filled containers and freezing it that way. When you thaw the catch at a later date, you skin and soak it in a brine solution with a pinch of baking soda.
Still, there’s no higher-quality fish than the fresh product, usually caught the same day or the day before. Some years back Janet caught a nice 4-pound walleye while musky fishing on a river upstate the day before some friends would arrive for the weekend. Although they had arranged to bring prime steaks the evening they arrived, we quickly huddled and served the walleye, baked simply with an almondine-butter overlay. The steaks finished second. On another occasion, when we were in Mattituck, I happened to catch a large black sea bass one morning on a weakfish trip. That afternoon we called a couple of close friends who appreciated good fish and fine wine and made hasty plans for the next day. We served the fish whole, oriental style, and the four of us consumed every last bit of it.
There are always challenges in preparing certain fish, no matter how fresh. There are pike from weedy rivers, sea robins from the bay, etc. But there have always been sauces that do the trick — at least most of the time. Forget the delicate white sauces and reach for the spice rack; maybe even contemplate a chowder or stew. The letter “c” immediately comes to mind (i.e., cumin, coriander, and curry). Just the other day, writer Tom Schlichter from Southold (firstname.lastname@example.org) sent us a sample of “Charissa,” a seasoning made with cumin and seasoned Spanish paprika by a supplier in Greenport, El Maleh Spice Souk. We’ve tried the mild version, and it seems to work nicely for a wide variety of fish recipes. By the way, such spices also work for milder local fish when you want a bit of “zest.” Scup come to mind here.
Still we have to admit there are certain fish we are still trying to figure out as table fare. The ultimate challenge has to be the little tunny, even if writers like A.J. McClane insist that some Asian islanders bleed, slice and marinate the daylights out of the darkest of the tuna family before serving it raw. Let us hear from someone who has actually eaten and enjoyed it first!