Wallow in the Blues

A truly fresh fish yields a happier tune

by Sanford D’Amato
photo by Kevin Miyazaki

There is a solid rap at the back kitchen screen door of the restaurant. I look over and see that the bright morning sun is completely eclipsed by the husky outline of a local fishmonger, self-named Chubby. 

“I’ve got a surprise for you today!” he calls out as he wedges himself through the doorway, each of his large paws grasping a three-foot fish. As he points one of the fish, as rigid as a board, toward my face, he proclaims, “They’re still in rigor mortis!”

Chubby was a local legend in the East Quogue area of Long Island where I worked in the late ’70s. He would arrive daily with bags of the most pristine Peconic Bay scallops that, because of their inherent sweetness, you could pop straight into your mouth like lush, briny candy.

But today, he has caught a beautiful 12-pound striped bass and a slightly smaller bluefish. They are so fresh that I expect them to start flipping. “Well, do you want them both?” he asks. The striped bass is for sure but, as blue things go—I love blueberries, I’m a huge blues music fan, and I’m a true-blue friend. But I hate bluefish.

All my experiences with bluefish up to this point were from my time at the Culinary Institute of America. Students were responsible for receiving fish (steward class), prepping fish (butchery), preparing fish (kitchen class), and serving it (service class). We also had to eat whatever we made.

Bluefish has high oil content and is very perishable. Slow and inexperienced student handling, slightly improper trimming and cooking, and delayed serving made this fish the scourge of lunch and dinner classes. The mere mention of bluefish was enough to send student diners scurrying for the exits to escape the funkiness.

I relate my misgivings to Chubby. “I’ll give you this one for free,” he says, “because I know after you have a really fresh bluefish, you’ll be buying all I can get you in the future.” 

I fillet the glistening fish and remove the skin and its red outside bloodline to yield thick filets that look like slightly darker-hued striped bass. I grill up a piece with just a bit of salt and pepper. The oil content of the fish helps it grill up with a golden, crunchy exterior and a moist, flavorful interior. This bluefish has zero relationship to my previous frightening experiences. As usual, Chubby didn’t disappoint. 

Thirty-plus years later, Angie and I are luxuriating in our first visit to the Pioneer Valley. Our friend David, the self-appointed guide for the day, takes us on his personal “Best of the Valley” tour. We start on River Road for blueberries, cross Christian Lane and go down to Golanka’s for corn and tomatoes, then into Northampton to Northshore Seafood for fish. As we enter the corner fish market, I am immediately smitten with the concise repertoire of the East Coast’s greatest piscatorial hits: sword, cod, hake, stripers, sea scallops, cherrystones, and mussels. David, with the excitement of a lottery winner, looks past them all and exclaims, “Yes! Bluefish!” 

Within an hour, we are scarfing down succulent, crusty bluefish between bites of sweet corn and a perfectly balanced tomato salad. It’s hard to seal a deal in one meal, but it is the start of the journey that brings us from Wisconsin to our current home on the banks of the Connecticut River in Hatfield. 

 

PEPPERED BLUEFISH WITH GLAZED TURNIPS AND TURNIP GREEN BROTH

This preparation makes full use of the Valley’s vibrant farmers’ markets. Find a nice bunch of just-dug early turnips with really fresh green tops to use when enhancing the broth. (If you can’t find turnips, radishes with tops will do.) The key, as Cubby taught me: It’s all about the freshest blue.

Serves 4

1 cup unsalted chicken stock

4 small (about 4 ounces each) turnips with fresh green tops, greens removed and reserved. Turnips peeled and cut in 1-inch wedges.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

Zest of ½ lemon and juice of 1 lemon (need 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon juice)

2 tablespoons crushed peppercorns, strained in a fine strainer to remove any pepper dust

4 (6- to 7-ounce, about 1-inch thick) skinless bluefish filets (can substitute striped bass)

2 shallots (1½ ounces), peeled and thinly sliced 

2 garlic cloves (½ ounce), peeled and finely chopped

½ cup dry white wine

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cover the turnip wedges with stock, add a pinch of salt, and bring up to a simmer for about 4–5 minutes, until just tender. Strain and reserve the turnip stock. Place a 12-inch sauté pan over high heat. When hot, add 1 tablespoon of the oil. When oil is hot, add the turnips, season lightly with salt and pepper, and sauté for about 4 minutes, until golden brown. Add the sugar and lemon zest and toss together. Add ½ teaspoon of the lemon juice, glaze, remove from pan, and reserve warm. Clean the pan and put back over medium-high heat. Divide the pepper evenly over tops of the bluefish and press in. Season all lightly with salt. Add the remaining oil to the pan and sauté the fish until golden brown on both sides, about 3 minutes per side. Remove the fish to a plate. 

Add the shallots and garlic to the pan and sauté for 1 minute. Add the wine and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and reduce by half. Add the reserved turnip stock and reduce to ⅓ to ½ cup. Place the reserved stock and reserved greens in a blender and purée until fine. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Divide the fish and turnips between 4 plates and divide the turnip green broth around and serve.