Only 16% of what the British fishing fleet catches finds its way onto our plates ! What we do eat is either wrapped in newspaper or deep-frozen in a layer of bedclothes (sorry, breadcrumbs). Which means, of course, that when we go away, many of us are far more partial to a meat dish than the fish we may have caught. Strange, isn’t it………..hmm.
Having been brought up in Alderney and having run boats for most of my life, I have been in the rather more fortunate position than many of you in having access to fresh, good quality fish. As my travels have taken me further and further away from cod and dabs and more into wahoo and tuna territory, so my tastes have been widened and I think I now have what could be called a cosmopolitan piscine palate. Here then, for your amusement, are some of the things I have learnt over the years about fish and the best way to bring it onto a plate.
One thing should be made quite clear at the outset. Whilst many European species of fish can be happily left alone in a sack for a few hours prior to disembowelment and further draconian alterations, tropical fish in general need immediate attention if they are to taste anything different to what you may have eaten before. To this end, we need to treat the two ‘populations’ of fish differently, and we’ll deal with warm water fish this month.
On a deep blue sea under sun and clear skies, there are several rules to follow when you catch your reel-emptying predator. Firstly, it must caught quickly to avoid a build-up of lactic acid. Over the years, after a multiple strike of pelagics, I have generally followed the rule of putting the first fish aboard in the fish-box, and then releasing the rest. As well as allowing you the luxury of the quickest fish to eat, you also then have somewhat quieter opponents to release afterwards.
STEP 1: some fish at this juncture also need bleeding, tunas being at the top of the list. There are several methods of bleeding a fish, ranging from the precise inch long incision behind the pectoral fin, to the brute strength gill-cut and the full-blooded caudal separation (that’s a cut-off tail to you and me !). Needless to say, this must be done while the fish is alive and the heart is pumping. If you’re not into banging fish on the head, this is also the calmest way of killing a fish, akin to a human cutting their wrists and slowly slipping away. The result is clear flesh with a lower iodine and iron content and taste - a very marked difference. You are also removing much of the heat source in this process which can continue to burn flesh long after it has been put into some shade somewhere.
STEP 2: immediately after this, gut and gill all fish you wish to eat. Exceptions to this rule only occur during a wide-open bite when the enemy is being encountered on all flanks. Failure to do this will ruin flesh, both by burning it and also by allowing bacteria to spread through the flesh wherever there is a separation of the membrane between stomach cavity and intestine. In some species this is merely an inconvenience, in others it can lead to illness - and there's nothing like competitive bowels to ruin a holiday !
If you can, clean a tuna through its gill opening, removing stomach, gills and other contents by cutting the vent open an inch, then digging out the thread-like lower end of the intestine which is then cut and you then pull everything out at the other end. This will then allow you to pack ice into the body cavity (which will then not directly touch flesh) before lowering the carcass into a fishbox. Wahoo, kingfish and other long things can simply be headed and tailed and lowered onto ice after you have scrubbed them with a deck-brush (I kid you not ! This removes all slime, algae and other nasties and ensures the skin is burnished brightly and goes crispy on a BBQ). If you have an ample supply of plastic bags, put pieces of fish in these before putting them on ice. Ice burns fish, as does slurry, so try to avoid flesh touching the cooling agent directly. If a fish is too long or big to put into a fish box, do not hesitate to cut into manageable hunks and put each hunk into a separate bag. It is also easier to fillet small bits at the end of the day too. Keep heads of large fish in a bucket out of the sun with a little water and ice. There will always be someone on the beach who will be forever grateful for them.
I much prefer to fillet fish after they have chilled, back at the dock or anchorage when the boat is quiet and feet are not slipping on a bloody deck. I kid you not when I say you will keep a sharp edge on your knife for much longer too !
STEP 3 : my favourite way to fillet large fish is to have them cut into 12" chunks. Fresh out of the coolbox, they will then be easier to fillet, transport and skin. To skin my fish, I always skin individual portions or small fillets. I do not like skinning dorados in their entirety, for example. At this juncture also remove any remaining viscera, ligaments, burnt or damaged flesh such as a gaff wound, any remaining bits of internal organs and general untidy areas. Rinse in a bucket of fresh sea water and then wrap in plastic and put back on ice.
STEP 4: if you keep fish for any length of time in the cooler or fridge, it is a good idea to pat the fish dry every day with kitchen paper, and drain the box in which the pieces are being stored. Ideally, you should be keeping your fish in a tuna box, which is a stainless steel or tupperware box, with a tight lid, and equipped with a drainage tray. You can put ice under the drainage tray as long as you change it regularly.
Stored this way, fish from the tropics will last quite some considerable time in cold storage, at least five days. Provided there is no blood or slime on the fish portions there will also be no noticeable deterioration in quality either.
Small hard-skinned fish such as snappers, grouper, breams and hind should be gutted and scaled on capture and kept in slurry. They will last fine all day, at the end of which they should be transferred to a box containing ice and put in a fridge. Change the ice daily and they will keep for about a week or more, providing all viscera and organs (including gills) have been removed effectively.
Other small fish such as mackerel, garfish, snook, and pompano can also be gilled and gutted and put in a slurry for the day, at the end of which you can then fillet them, skin them, freeze them whole or stick them promptly in a frying pan or similar. None of these soft-skinned open-water fish will last long. Indeed, they can become dangerous to eat, so make sure they hit a plate quickly.
Shark benefit from the cold treatment too, after which I like to freeze the portions until I want to eat them. This dissolves much of the ammonia and makes them wonderful to eat.
STEP 5: to freeze fish, buy a vacuum-packer. You cannot beat one and they make fish last for ever ! Of course, on holiday or out on a reef it is impracticable to take your vacuum machine with you, so you have to make do with another option. The best one is to try and find some empty milk or juice cartons and after putting your fish in them, top them with sea water and freeze. This will completely negate the onset of freezer-burn, which is a fish’s worst enemy - apart from a sharp hook, of course! If empty cartons are unavailable, then wrapping each individual fish in cling-film and freezing it is a popular substitute. Some people prefer to leave their fish in large chunks for freezing but I find this then leaves you with a lot of fish to be eaten if you only want a bit (!) and can also lead to bad-quality fish as it cannot freeze quickly enough. You make the choice .
Small fish are best frozen individually too. In fact, if I know I am going to freeze small fish such as snappers, I will only gut them and leave the scales on. When the time comes to use them this does make scaling them difficult, but overcome this by thawing them slowly in salt-water and the scales will then come off easier.
STEP 6: cooking blue-water fish is the best bit. Well, eating it is really, since much of what you have caught can be eaten raw if processed correctly, and a plate of sushi with your beer at dusk is one of the fringe benefits of spending hundreds of pounds to beaten about at sea in small boats !
My preference is for grilled fish above all else - grilled correctly according to species, and then served with some sort of dipping sauce. You can keep your steak and your chicken, but if I only have one thing to eat for the rest of my life on a desert island then it is fish. The variety available is amazing and can satisfy any mood-swings you may have. If you want to get bogged down in something satisfying like meat, then an inch thick slab of fresh tuna, still pink in the middle, will surely get you close to your goal. For something supremely tasty beyond belief, try a plate of char-grilled goujons of belly strip of wahoo, lightly marinated first in something involving orange, honey, tomato and garlic. It sounds difficult, but it isn’t, honest ! Steaks of dorado, cobia, yellowtail, grouper and anything else you want to name are superb with just butter and a glass of white wine. The trick of course, is to get the grill to the right heat. Once you can do that, then you can cook anything, including crustaceans such as crayfish and prawns, which although rarely seen hanging from a 12/0 do tend to crop up from time to time when you’re on a boat.
To be honest, I also like the frying-pan too, especially for small whole fish, dipped in something spicy and then sprinkled with salt and then fried over a medium heat. They do take some beating, especially when served with big slab-sided chips and a fresh salad. Incidentally, salad dressings in their many different formats make an excellent instant dipping sauce. Fried fish is excellent with the juices from the pan and a piece of bread and butter too, and some fish actually is better done this way, particularly cuts of smaller-sized fish such as tuna and wahoo which might tend to dry out otherwise on a grill.
Sad to say, the odd piece of bill-fish has passed my way too, and as much as it may seem to be unethical, I will eat it occasionally. I refuse to buy swordfish from my local fishmonger, and I’m forever berating him for trying to flog it, but I did smoke several of the huge dead blue marlin from Madeira, and I have eaten smoked sailfish in Kenya, and very nice they were too. A big mature billfish is really not good for anything else, although sliced very thinly it is fine fried with butter and garlic and eaten in a sandwich - something to remember if you ever find yourself with an unintended hunk of meat.
Sometimes, some of the strangest things turn up to whet your appetite and lodge themselves in your culinary memory-bank. High on my personal list is opah, or moon-fish, which I have eaten in Hawaii on several occasions. I can honestly say that is one of the finest fish I have ever eaten anywhere, a cross between salmon, swordfish and turbot. Likewise the small chicarros from Madeira, immature scads up to four or five inches long which are deep-fried after being heavily seasoned. You eat every last scrap of them and although the entire process might resemble a white-bait feast, the taste is quite different - much the same can be said of a variety of bait species around the world.
Another moon-fish, by nick-name, is the look-down, a small sheet of silver disguised as a jack. Catching them off the jetty in Anguilla on flies at night, and then trimming them before frying them whole in a frying-pan that they might have been made for, is also a fond memory. Wherever I have been in the world, I have eaten the fish there, and rarely have I thought of the meat I was missing !
Next month we’ll look at some of the species closer to home and I’ll introduce you to a couple of tricks you may not know about ! We might also do a couple of recipes…………..hmm.