It can be potent, meaty and oily; but while some shy away from the abundant bluefish, East End natives — those who fish and chefs alike — know prepared properly the powerful fish can be a delicious, and healthy, addition to the seafood dishes crafted for the summer table.
Feisty on and offshore, bluefish are a fight to catch and biologically designed to chase after other fish during menhaden runs, resulting in a meatier, oilier fish. These voracious feeders are one of few saltwater anglers actually want to be a small catch, with the average market size being just a few pounds.
Commercial baymen, recreational fishermen, fish market owners, and chefs all have their own mix of memories, and preparations for bluefish. Though they have gotten a bad rap over the years, bluefish are enjoying a revival on restaurant menus and in the home kitchen.
“I grew up eating bluefish because my dad was a sport fisherman,” says Charlotte Sasso of Stuart’s Seafood in Amagansett. “I ate it a lot. It’s gotten a bad rap about being strong, but that strength is now an asset because it’s high in omega-threes. There’s a super health benefit because its oily.”
Novices may assume a smaller fish wouldn’t be worth keeping, but for bluefish that’s just what fishermen and consumers are looking for. Bluefish complement a higher priced fish like tuna, offering the same health benefits all oily fish give the body, are easy to grill and are available at a lower price point. Sasso says bluefish works well with Mediterranean flavors like olive oil and garlic with fresh lemon, and Asian flavors like hoisin and soy-based marinades. To really treat it like tuna, bluefish can be poached and made into a salad with mayo, celery and lemon, or served Nicoise style in a salad.
“What I love about the seafood business is that there’s still seasonality,” says Sasso, noting the arrival of bluefish in her market is a harbinger for spring. Stuart’s sells filets for around $8 per pound. “Bluefish come back in spring and people are waiting for them. We are very selective about the size we want and we pay our fishermen more because of that. Ours are literally swimming in the morning and in the case a few hours later.”
Freshness plays a huge role in the taste of bluefish. Because they have a shorter shelf life, fishermen suggest cutting them right away and keeping them at a very cold temperature. In the beginning of the season, the smaller, more desirable blues are in abundance and can get a higher wholesale price at the New York City fish markets, around $1 to $1.50 per pound according to commercial bayman Stuart Heath. As bluefish are caught places outside of the East End, the price drops to 20 cents per pound as the market can only absorb so much of one species. In comparison, striped bass sell for $7 per pound wholesale.
Heath has a pound trap off Navy Road in Montauk where he runs a clean fishery, throwing back what he doesn’t want or can’t sell. He’s dealt with bluefish his whole life, from childhood to his career as a commercial fisherman. “If you get a fresh one, not too big, cut it right away,” he says. “My mother used to take little strips and roll them in Aunt Jemima pancake flour, which is a little sweeter and has a unique taste, and cook them in the skillet. You would never know they were bluefish.”
Fishermen have noted bluefish populations have been consistently healthy on the East End. For recreational surfcasters like Adam Flax from East Hampton, bluefish can be more of a nuisance as they have very sharp teeth, and tear up lures with nice feathers and rubber tails. But, some people still love them.
“The two fish in the surf are striped bass and bluefish,” Flax shares, who fishes mostly on the ocean side from Bridgehampton to Montauk. “I’ve had nice, super-fresh versions. I have a fishing buddy that’s a good chef. Usually the smaller ones are better and tastier, and he makes a ceviche that’s pretty good.”
Ken Homan is the president of Braun’s Seafood in Cutchogue and is particularly passionate about bluefish. Like his fellow fishermen, he grew up eating it. Because it’s oily, it has to be eaten fresh and fileting right after being caught and immersing it in ice water can help give it a longer shelf life, he said, though the maximum is an average of three days.
“The younger ones in the two to six-pound range really have a lot of flavor,” Homan says. “I personally love it. It’s such an under-utilized fish and I try to promote it because it’s so diverse. You can make pâté out of it, broil, bake, and fry it.”
At Braun’s you can find deboned filets in the case for around $6.95 per pound. The fish market aims to keep the prices low, especially for the locals, and also to help make the fish move. Daily they have cases ready, packed and labeled for various distributors and fish markets in New York City. Recently, an entire pallet of bluefish came from a fisherman right on Shelter Island.
With a long, cold start to the year on the East End, blues and other fish also had a later start to the season. “They’re starting to come here and spawn, and concentrate on eating more,” Homan explains. “It’s a very aggressive fish. When it starts eating well and fat content increases it has more flavor. Now through August is a great time for them.”
Recalling his own childhood eating bluefish, Colin Mather, who owns The Seafood Shop in Wainscott, was among what he calls the “helpless children” who ate the oily fish more often than not. “It is so abundant in this area, making it one of the most reasonably priced fish,” he said. “Many of us can remember a time when bluefish was given to us as kids, more than we’d like to remember, mostly for the aforementioned reason.”
Though it’s not all bad for Mather. Calling himself an old-fashioned guy, he personally prepares bluefish at home with some mayo, salt and pepper in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes depending on the size of the filet. He’s also a fan of smoked bluefish and dips, both of which have become largely popular preparations.
Bluefish’s bad rap and abundance is what draws Chef Frank DeCarlo of Barba Bianca in Greenport to it. The chef, who also owns rustic Italian restaurant, Peasant, and Venetian wine bar, Bacaro, in the city, had his first taste of bluefish on Shelter Island. A group of friends had returned from fishing and were going to freeze the bluefish as bait, but he decided to filet it poolside and cook it on the grill. “It was surprising how delicious this fish was,” DeCarlo says. “Everyone told me blues were not worth eating.”
DeCarlo is a fan of under-utilized and unusual seafood, and is conservation-minded when creating his menu. Bluefish, currently available for dinner, is one of his favorites now to prepare by pan roasting filets with salt, pepper, olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. He also sources everything as closely to the docks of his restaurant as possible, getting fresh blues from Charlie Manwaring at the Southold Fish Market. “They are a perfect fish,” DeCarlo says. “Feisty and full of surprises, just like the sea.”
Manwaring admires the focus of DeCarlo’s menu. “He does some crazy stuff,” shares the owner of the Southold Fish Market. “Sea robins, skate, bluefish, and conch. People love it. The worst thing is people already have a mindset against it, but if you make it and say it’s another fish they don’t even notice the difference.”
Laughing that his daughter can eat any fish in the market, Manwaring says bluefish is her favorite. The market also has a kitchen, dishing out various seafood items in the casual and classic setting. Bluefish has been served in the form of tacos, with Italian seasoning, tomato and onion, pan seared, and soaked in buttermilk and deep fried for sandwiches. Manwaring suggests larger bluefish for smoking as the extra grease adds to the flavor.
Chef Michael Rozzi of 1770 House in East Hampton shares DeCarlo’s love of serving bluefish. His menu has featured fresh, skin-on fish with strong preparations like tomatoes and corn complemented by a lot of acid through wine or lemon. Rozzi recommends the grill as well as the char and flames can help tame some of the fish’s other powerful flavors. For a real Bonac style, Rozzi says you can’t go wrong with spreads, dips, and even bluefish pie, with Ritz crackers. He was also a fan of the thrill of the chase.
“Catching snapper and bluefish was so much fun when I was a young man,” Rozzi says. “In fact, it was a staple food for baymen and Bonackers alike. I remember vividly my mom cooking up freshly caught snapper right out of Shinnecock Bay. In the fall, bluefish were the majority of what we caught surfcasting, if we weren’t lucky enough to catch a bass.”
By Chef Frank DeCarlo of Barba Bianca in Greenport
4 bluefish fillets (5-6 ounces each)
2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 crushed garlic cloves
1/2 cup chopped Gaeta olives
2 tablespoon capers
1/2 lb cherry tomatoes (cut in half)
Chopped Italian parsley
Salt & pepper the bluefish
Heat oil on med high heat in a large pan. Add crushed garlic, sauté 2 minutes, add tomatoes, capers, olives and simmer for 3-4 minutes, stir until tomatoes break down, another 4-5 minutes.
Another pan, heat on med high and add 1 T olive oil, add bluefish skin side down and cook for 2-3 minutes, flip over and cook for another 2-3 minutes, until flesh is just opaque. Turn off heat, plate fish and pour sauce over fish, garnish with chopped parsley.