Emily Manwaring is in the enviable position of having any kind of fish she wants, any time she wants it, and her father Charlie Manwaring, whose family business is the Southold Fish Market, says his 13-year-old is an extremely picky eater. So, what does Emily choose?
“My youngest daughter since she was five absolutely loves bluefish,” says Manwaring, confirming that the child of a North Fork fishmonger prefers a wild-caught fish that is also used as bait.
If the word bluefish summons thoughts of dark filets and oiliness, you may be thinking of a meal that was ruined by the hand of man somewhere between the hook and plate. As chefs and fishermen know, bluefish that is properly handled and cooked is as firm, flaky and full of flavor as striped bass, and more affordable than most other wild-caught fish.
“Bluefish in the Northeast is an underappreciated fish, and it’s one of the fish people most often catch,” says Will Horowitz, a cookbook author and chef who worked most recently at Anker and Alpina in Greenport. Horowitz grew up spending summers in Orient with a grandfather who loved to catch bluefish, and a grandmother who knew how to cook it. The tattoo of a bluefish on his leg is one sign of his devotion.
Horowitz says the surge of interest in mackerel and anchovies has lifted bluefish as well. “All over the Mediterranean, all over Asia, that cross cultural relevance has shown us the light.”
Mackerel and bluefish share a lot of characteristics, says Horowitz. Like mackerel, bluefish are fierce underwater predators, and should be cooked differently than fish with a more peace-loving lifestyle. “Bluefish is a wolf under there, with the speed and strength and teeth to prove it,” he says. “I wouldn’t cook it the same as a salmon. It’s like a larger anchovy, a little bit oily. It has its own process to make it great.” Smoked bluefish was a mainstay at Ducks Eatery in New York where Horowitz was an owner and chef, as was cold smoked bluefish gravlax. He’s also partial to pickling it like herring.
As more people get the word about the delicious health benefits of omega 3 oils found in anchovies, mackerel and bluefish, the demand for those fish is increasing. “Now the price of bluefish is starting to go up,” says Manwaring. “Those are good oils that we need in our body, and if it is kept iced and bled, it’s a nice fish.”
Tim Regan is a Montauk-based recreational angler and photographer who also works as a fishing guide. He loves eating bluefish almost as much as he loves catching them, and says bluefish is unfairly maligned by fishermen who are not sure what to do with it. “Instead of admitting they are doing it wrong they will say the bluefish is just gross.” Regan, along with most chefs and anglers, agrees that bluefish is better when it is bled, just like striped bass and swordfish. It’s also imperative to keep it cold until it is cooked and eaten.
Regan says the smaller blues make the best eating. “Cocktail blues, 3-6 pounds, is the best size.” Another consideration is that as carnivorous fish get bigger, their flesh may contain more mercury than a smaller fish of the same kind. The population of bluefish is under less pressure, relative to most other wild caught fish, but it fluctuates from year to year, and catch limits which were once 50 to 100 fish, are now limited to 3 a day for recreational fishers.
“The old joke is, to cook bluefish put a brick on it, throw the fish away and eat the brick,” says Manwaring, “but actually it’s hard to screw up bluefish because you can’t overcook it. It’s a good fish even if you aren’t a good cook.”
Bluefish is even better if you are a good cook, which is why so many restaurants use bluefish as the main ingredient in their fish tacos, sometimes referring to it as ‘blue snapper.’ Tim Regan makes bluefish tacos a cooking party with one friend assigned the red cabbage slaw, one on the guacamole and the rest running the assembly line to bread the filets in spiced flour, egg and bread crumbs before frying them.
In Blues, John Hersey’s 1987 treatise on all things bluefish, the author describes a season of fishing on twelve days from June through September, each highlighted by another way to cook bluefish, from a minimalist baste of lemon butter to the traditional slather of skinless filets with mayonnaise, fortified by onion, ginger and soy sauce.
At the end of season Hersey writes, “every time I haul in a blue, big or little, I have so many strange mixed feelings. I’m moved by the fury of the fish, I’m astonished every time by its pride, by the energy of the negation in its leaps, by its thrashing refusal—to the very limit of its endurance in the poisonous air—to accept my views of its place, and my place, in the food chain: in the universe.”
How to Prepare Will Horowitz’s Brined and Grilled Bluefish
Chef Will Horowitz grills filets skin-on after brining them to firm up the flesh. In a large zipper bag or shallow, non-reactive covered container, mix 2 1/2 cups water, 2 teaspoons of kosher salt, two teaspoons of honey, a crushed garlic clove and sprigs of juniper or spruce. Cover a pound of freshly cleaned filets in the brine, and refrigerate for 2-12 hours. Remove the filets from the brine, and allow them to air dry for at least a few minutes, or up to 3 hours uncovered and refrigerated to improve the texture during cooking. Grill skin side up over spruce or pine boughs, 6-8 minutes for one-inch thick filets, until they yield to a fork.
To honor this fierce fighting fish, Horowitz takes special care that it is not overdone. “Truthfully, I know fish is done by using a metal cake tester or thin metal skewer placed in the thickest part of the filet, with the other end touching my bottom lip” says Horowitz. “If it feels cold, it needs more time; room temperature to just warm, it’s perfect, if it’s hot then it’s overcooked.”