In John Hersey’s fabulous little 1987 book, “Blues,” he describes, in philosophical conversations with “the stranger,” the complex relationship between fisherman, fish, and the sea. It’s a terrific read and the perfect season to read it. Fishing changes my perception of the environment where fish are found. It opens my eyes to a natural world I do not fully see without a fishing rod in hand. But in “Blues,” it’s the quaint New England recipes that end each chapter that always endears me to the book.
Most of my fishing friends chase striped bass this time of year and there is no doubt that stripers are fun to catch and great on the grill. But bluefish is my summer favorite, both to fish and to cook. There is nothing quite like finding some “nervous” water (the surface is disturbed by tiny bait fish trying to escape from the bluefish as the larger fish chase and devour them from below), then suddenly being in the middle of a bluefish blitz. The fish tear into a school of bait fish in a frenzy and when you are there too, catching them is heart-pounding sport.
As bold as bluefish are in their natural habitat, they are equally bold on the plate. I like to add to their big flavor with hot and spicy enhancements. “G-spice” is the name the Hamersley’s Bistro cooks gave to a Louisiana-style spice rub I made up decades ago. It packs a little punch, uses some classic flavors and creates a subtle blend of hot spice with aromatic highlights that goes with many things. One of my favorites is what it does to bluefish. Cayenne, paprika, cumin, coriander, and fennel make up the base of the blend and I use it on both fish and meat.
Mayonnaise is known in French cooking as a mother sauce because it gives birth to so many different new sauces when you add flavorings. In this recipe I add a sprinkle of the spice mix, a spoon of Dijon mustard, and a dollop of prepared horseradish. This turns familiar mayonnaise into a robust sauce to flavor the accompanying coleslaw and eat with the fish.
Summer fish for me always means coleslaw and I particularly like using raw beets. Add green or Savoy cabbage, carrot, and radish with a hit of horseradish mayonnaise and you have a fabulous accompaniment. Each bite is a treat. The charred-on fish spices blend well as you pick up the spice mixture’s highlights. The crunchy slaw is earthy and beet-sweet and the horseradish lends a zing.
Grilling steak-type fish like swordfish and tuna is easy but flaky bluefish can be challenging for all but the most experienced cooks. Start with as thick a piece as you can find. The trick with the grill is to get the coals hot enough to create a sear on the skin side fairly quickly without having it all burst into flames, charring the bluefish beyond recognition. Brushing the grill grate well and seasoning it with a bit of oil just before setting down the fish helps keep it from sticking. In the same vein, drying the fish beforehand is important because moisture is the enemy. Pat the fillets with paper towels before seasoning. Being patient and letting the hot coals do the work without moving the fish for the first few minutes is key to lifting it and turning it over successfully. Timing is everything. Practice makes grilling fish more predictable and inexpensive bluefish is a good choice to gain experience with.
Blues are the ultimate carnivores and they will stop at nothing to slash, rip, and tear apart what they are after. Surfers tell of losing toes, boaters tell of panic and mayhem when a big bluefish is boated.
My friend Max Harvey, owner of Georges Bank Seafood, remembers the chaos that ensued when he once caught two big blues at the same time and tried to remove the hooks aboard his small, barely seaworthy craft. I laughed when he said, “I learned the hard way that long nosed pliers and a pair of thick rubber gloves are indispensible equipment when chasing bluefish.”
Your heart may pound like mine when you catch your bluefish, but your mouth will water as you lift a thick fillet off your grill and eat it with robust coleslaw on
Gordon Hamersley can be reached at cookingwithgordonhamersley@gmail