One of my favorite things to do growing up in Brooklyn was to go fishing in Jamaica Bay. My parents, having grown up in a fishing village, saw it as a way to keep me busy and a way to bring home some food to last us for a week or two. My family did not believe in the “catch and release” concept, unless you count the numerous undersize Striped Bass we let go in the 80s. Yes, I ate the fish we caught and I still have all 10 toes and have grown used to my webbed feet.
The fish here was a lot different than Istra so my family had to adapt. There were no Sardines, Branzino, Cuttlefish or Scorpion fish. Instead we had Porgy, Blackfish, Flounder and Bluefish. Out of all of these fish Bluefish was the one my family gravitated towards. Its flesh reminded them of the oily sardines and mackerel they grew up on and reacted the same way to cooking. On top of that it was one hell of a fish to catch especially when in the 10-18 lb range. Now we only caught one every other time we went out from Canarsie Pier. But once we bought a 17 foot Bayliner we were trolling up and down Jamaica Bay and bagging them like no tomorrow and giving them out to our family every weekend.
It was always a rite of passage to catch the first one of each season, usually around mid May. In the past three years I have re-ignited that rite and caught one each year surf fishing. This year I figured I would beat the chase and get on a boat. So on May 1st, the one year anniversary of my quitting smoking after 23 years, I decided the celebrate by heading out of Sheepshead Bay. I was reliving the tradition my dad taught me feeling the sea wind in my hair as we headed out to Breezy Point. Ahead of us a swarm of seagulls right over a slew of Bunker with Bluefish underneath for sure. And just like when he first took me out there when I was 8 years old I caught my first Bluefish of the season. A nice 13 lb one hitting the same jig I used 30 years ago, thanks Dad for the fish.
My family’s favorite thing was to grill it the night we caught it, and for good reason. Bluefish flesh deteriorates very quickly, a matter of 36 hours or so, and becomes too fishy for most people. And because of that oily flesh it reacts very well to an open flame and develops the perfect crust on its skin. Grilled whole you can seal in all the flavor, as long as you pay attention to flame ups, and have a juicy inner fish meat that tastes of the ocean. I wanted to stay true to what my family had taught me but also put a new spin on it. I decided to go for a cedar plank smoking method but I wanted to add another level of textural and spice complexity. The logical route was to go with a Mexican inspired Chili & Pumpkin coating to give the fish another level of texture and flavor.
What follows is much more than a fish recipe to me. It’s a tribute to a local fish which doesn’t get enough respect and usually is served horribly. By the way, never order Bluefish in a diner… that’s gonna be a bad seafood experience all the way around. This is also a tribute to all the pier and shore fisherman in Brooklyn and NYC who have been over looked for years. Lastly this is a tribute to Gino and the skills he taught me with fishing and cooking that I hope to one day pass down to my child.
Chili, Pumpkin Seed & Cedar Smoked Bluefish
I want to preface this with saying a few things about the fish. If you are catching this on a boat or from the shore make sure to cut the bloodline under the collar of the fish immediately after catching to bleed it out. I know this sounds nasty but its going to eliminate some of those enzymes that deteriorate the fish flesh and give you a much better texture and flavor when cooked. Then fillet it yourself, don’t let the deckhands on a boat use some sloppy knife they have been using for bait all season long. Have them just scale and gut the fish and you can do the rest home. If you are buying the fillets to make this recipe just go to a reputable place. One good option is to actually go to Sheepshead Bay when the boats come in from their day trips and buy straight from the boats. And overall try to get this fish cooked pretty soon after you bring the fish home, I would say within 24 hours. This isn’t a piece of Salmon so don’t teach them the same.
- 2 medium size Bluefish fillets
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tbsp Mexican oregano
- 1 tsp Chili Piquin powder
- 2 tbsp whole Cumin seeds
- 2 1/2 tbsp Ancho Chili powder
- 1/4 cup hulled pumpkin seed
- 2 limes thinly sliced
- 1 cedar grilling planks
- salt & pepper to taste
Take the cumin seeds and pumpkin seeds and lightly toast in a skillet. You will smell a citrus aroma with a bit of sesame coming through the air, that’s when you know they should be taken off the flame. Take the seeds and drop them into a spice grinder or mortar & pestle. Grind them up a bit bit just to get them started. Next drop in all the other spices into the spice grinder and give it a nice grind until you get a pretty fine mixture. It should feel like beach sand when rolled in between your fingers. Take the spice mixture and rub it all over your topsides of your fillets skin side down. Pat the mixture into the fish fillets and make sure you have nice and even coverage. Brush off any excess and discard into the trash. Place the fillets in the fridge for at least 4 hours, this will allow the spice rub to penetrate the fish and give it a light cure. Next you will want to soak your cedar plank for two hours in cold water. When you are ready to cook get a charcoal grill ready with some really hot coals. You want there to be a nice medium high flame towards the two thirds of the embers fire cycle when you put the plank on the grill. Take out your fish and let it get to room temperature for 15 minutes. Place the fillets on the planks as shown bellow and cover with lime slices.
Place the cedar plank on the center of the grill and cover with the vents slightly opened on the bottom and almost completely closed on top. This will allow for the smoke created by the cedar to be captured in the grill and permeate the fish and at the same time feed the flame. Check every once in a while for flame ups and make sure the plank doesn’t burn up too much. The total grilling time should be about 15-20 minutes. Depending on your heat you might want to give a “fork flake try” 15 minutes in to check for doneness.
When you bite into the fish you will have a slight smoke from the cedar followed by a nice chili and nut crust that gives into the flesh. The inner flesh will be moist and not overdone with some of the lime finishing off the flavor profile. This can be eaten as is or used as filling for fish tacos, as we did. It’s an easy recipe to follow and I suggest trying using any locally caught fish. I think Striped Bass season is right around the corner so give it a try with that.