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Reaping summer’s seafood bounty as fish head north

  • Baked Bluefish before baking GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Baked Bluefish after baking GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Shrimp Spread GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



For the Bulletin
Thursday, July 13, 2017

Bluefish are the snowbirds of the sea. They spend winter off the warm coasts of Florida, but summer in the north, where Nantucket and Cape Cod are favorite hangouts.

Other fish also move to summer homes. Striped bass pass the winter snuggled in estuaries or in the deep ocean, where temperatures stay a bit warmer, then move back close to the shore for summer.

Salmon and shad follow their own devices in the ocean for years, but eventually summer sparks their breeding urge, so they trek back to the headwaters of the rivers that gave them birth and lay their eggs there.

At the height of summer so many red salmon throng the rivers of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska that they make the water look red. Mark Penney, Seafood Team Leader at Whole Foods Market in Hadley, says salmon arrive in the famed Copper River in late-May. These early salmon are costly. “But the price drops right down really quickly,” he says, noting that during the two-big salmon runs in late-June and mid-July Pacific salmon is so plentiful that it is often on special.

When you see salmon fillets stretched on the fish counter, you can tell those from the Pacific by their deep carnelian color. Penney notes that “Coho and King salmon, which arrive a bit later, are not as brilliant as the Sockeyes.” In contrast, farmed Atlantic salmon are a peachy pink, tuna, a dark beefy red and mahi mahi (also called dolphin fish) has blush-pink flesh.

Compared to these handsome creatures, murky-gray bluefish lack eye-appeal, and their flesh looks ragged rather than taut. This modest appearance — which improves considerably during cooking — partly accounts for their low cost. Then, too, their rich flavor does not appeal to everyone. Yet bluefish has aficionados, especially in coastal New England, and especially in July, when its return from the south means that it at its freshest and cheapest.

Bluefish is good baked. Penney also suggests placing it on a cedar plank and grilling it. “The plank stops it sticking to the grill, and because it’s cooked with the lid of the grill down, you get a slightly smoky flavor” he says, noting that salmon, shad, swordfish and tuna can all be cooked this way.

Like fish, humans change their habits in summer. “People like to grill, so swordfish is really popular. It’s firm and meaty and that makes it less likely to stick to the grill,” Penney explains. He suggests marinating swordfish in either oil and herbs for a Mediterranean take, or in a teriyaki marinade for an Asian vibe.

Tuna is another favorite for cookouts. Vasil Veshia, who is a keen sports fisherman from Amherst, explains: “Tuna swims 60 miles off the coast in the Gulf Stream, which stays the same temperature as the waters of Florida year-round. We catch them in summer and up until November. After that the weather makes it too hard to get out there.”

On the way out he can often catch mahi mahi. “Lobster pots, a piece of wood: anything – even a blade of grass! – attracts little fish and they attract the mahi mahi.”

Closer to home, Veshia was catching sea bass in Buzzard’s Bay in June. “It prefers shallow water,” he notes. Striped bass also like shallow water. For eating he says, striped bass have a stronger taste, while sea bass — his favorite — has a “fantastic clean flavor.”

Penney’s top choices are local shellfish including oysters from Cape Cod and mussels from Maine. “I love them when entertaining and grilling outside,” he says. “I like the oysters raw with a selection of condiments or cooked on the grill with flavored butters. I love the mussels steamed in different broths — beer or roasted garlic cream or Thai curry — with grilled sourdough to sop up all the juices.”

Getting hungry? Here are some more ways to enjoy summer’s harvest from the sea.

SALMON PASTRAMI

Pastrami made from salmon instead of beef? Perfect for summer!

The salmon is not cooked, so no heating up your kitchen. It’s preserved by the salt and heartily flavored by the spices. Serve it instead of beef pastrami for a lighter riff on the traditional Reuben sandwich. You’ll have some leftover spice mixture, which you can use as a rub for barbecued meats — or for making the pastrami a second time.

For the pickling spice:

2 tablespoons black peppercorns

2 tablespoons mustard seed

2 tablespoons coriander seed

1 tablespoon hot chili flakes

1 tablespoon juniper berries

½ teaspoon nutmeg

1-inch piece cinnamon stick

6 bay leaves

1 teaspoon cloves

1 teaspoon ground ginger

For the Wild Salmon Pastrami:

5 ounces kosher salt

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon sugar

4 teaspoons pickling spice

1 tablespoon pink salt

¼ cup dark brown sugar

1 clove garlic, minced

1 quart water

3-pound side wild salmon

2 tablespoons white pepper

2 tablespoons coriander seed

To make the spice mixture, put all the ingredients in a spice grinder or a coffee grinder and whiz them until they are blended into a coarse powder. (If you use a coffee grinder rather than a dedicated spice grinder, clean it to remove the coffee smell by whizzing a couple of large cubes of stale bread in it. Remove and wipe the interior clean. If it still smells of coffee, repeat this step.)

Use the pickling spice for the salmon pastrami, and keep leftovers in a lidded jar for using as a barbecue rub or for making pickles and relishes.

To prepare the salmon, put the salt, honey, sugar, pickling spice, pink salt, dark brown sugar, and minced garlic in a saucepan with a quart of cold water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes, then let it cool to room temperature.

Put the salmon into a shallow dish such as a lasagne pan, then pour the cooled liquid over it so the salmon is completely immersed; if necessary add a little more water to achieve this.

Leave the salmon in the refrigerator for 36 hours. Remove and discard the liquid. Pat the surface dry.

Crush the white peppercorns and coriander seed together using a mortar and pestle, or by whizzing them in the spice grinder until they are a coarse powder.

Press this mixture all over the top surface of the salmon. Leave it uncovered in the fridge until the surface is dry, then wrap in plastic wrap.

To serve, slice thinly on the diagonal with a sharp knife as you would cut smoked salmon. Cover any unused portion with plastic wrap and keep in the fridge.

BAKED BLUEFISH

In the Adriatic all dark-fleshed full-flavored fish such as tuna and sardines are called bluefish. The Italian cookery writer Marcella Hazan says that when her appetite is jaded by heat, one bite of any of these fish revives it. She points out that their deep marine flavors demand other intense flavors in accompaniments.

This recipe uses mustard and herbs. Other fish that can be baked this way include cod, tuna, swordfish and mahi mahi.

1 fillet of bluefish weighing about 1¼ pounds

Salt and black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon English or Chinese dry mustard powder (optional)

1 tablespoon snipped parsley or dill, or some of each

About 2 tablespoons coarse breadcrumbs made from day old bread

About 15 cherry tomatoes

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease an oval gratin dish or a similarly shallow baking dish. Place the fish in it and season it with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Adding the dry mustard powder to the Dijon mustard gives it a zing. If using it, combine the two mustards with about ¾ of the snipped parsley or dill. Spread this over the fish. Scatter the bread crumbs on top. Use enough of them to mostly cover the surface. Bake for 5 minutes.

During this time, make a ½-inch slash in the skin of each tomato. Add the tomatoes to the baking dish, arranging them around the side of the fish. Cook for another 5-7 minutes or until the fish is opaque all the way through, the crumbs are golden brown, and the cherry tomatoes heated through. Scatter on the remaining parsley or dill and serve.

GRILLED SWORDFISH WITH SPINACH AND HERBS

Swordfish is a meaty-textured fish that cooks well on the grill (and also in the oven), but because it is sold in very thick slices, care must be taken to keep it moist. Marinating for a few hours before cooking helps, and in this recipe the tasty spinach and herb topping helps prevent it from drying out on the grill.

For the fish:

Large swordfish steak about 16-20 ounces

Salt and black pepper

2-3 tablespoons oil

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 bay leaves

2 sprigs thyme or 1teaspoon dried

2-3 springs parsley

1 cup cooked spinach

Pinch nutmeg, preferably freshly grated

For the topping:

1½ tablespoon all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons butter at room temperature

1 egg, beaten

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 teaspoon dried thyme or oregano

Pinch salt plus generous grinding of black pepper

Begin 4-5 hours before the meal by washing and drying the swordfish, then seasoning with salt and pepper. In a shallow bowl, mix the oil, and lemon juice. Position the herbs and bay leaves in the dish then place the swordfish on top. Turn it over so that both sides get coated in the marinade and leave to marinate, turning once or twice and redistributing the herbs to flavor the fish.

While the fish is marinating prepare the grill by making a fire, and oiling the rack with olive oil.

To finish preparing the fish, remove it from the marinade and discard the herbs. Spread the spinach in a thin layer on one side of the fish leaving a ¼-inch uncovered edge all round. Grate a little nutmeg on the spinach.

To make the topping, work the flour into the butter to make a thick paste, then add the beaten egg gradually, stirring it in little by little until you have a smooth mixture about as thick as mayonnaise. (You may not need all the egg).

Add the parsley and thyme and season to taste with the salt and black pepper. Using a spatula, spread this mixture over the spinach, covering it as much as possible.

When the coals are glowing red, rake them flat and put the fish on the oiled grill. Close the lid. Cook for 8-10 minutes checking occasionally do not turn the fish over. Test for doneness by inserting a knife blade into the fish and pushing it to one side so you can see if it is opaque all through.

This is good served with ears of corn or succotash and bread. Or have a rice pilaf studded with vegetables.

MAHI MAHI SICILIAN STYLE

Celery and fish are not a common pairing, but in this dish they team with capers and olives to taste perfect together. The recipe also pairs sugar and vinegar, a sweet-sour combination called agrodolce in Italian. In this case the sour vinegar should be stronger than the sweet sugar so that you have a refreshing acid tang up front with a background sweetness that pulls the flavors together.

You could serve this hot with pasta, but it is often served cold with bread or a salad. This makes it a perfect hot-weather dish because you can prepare it in the cool of the morning and save yourself work in the hot afternoon.

2 cups celery, half inch dice

1 large onion, finely chopped

4-5 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 tablespoon capers, drained

1 dozen pitted green olives, halved

1½ tablespoons sugar

3-4 tablespoons white wine vinegar or more to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

1¼ pounds mahi mahi fillet, cut in 8-10 pieces

1-2 tablespoons flour

Put the celery in a small saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil then simmer for about 10 minutes or until it is tender.

In another pan gently cook the onion in 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil for 4-5 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, and then the cooked celery and about ¾ of a cup of the liquid it has cooked in. Stir over moderate heat for 3-4 minutes to make a thick sauce. If necessary add more of the celery broth or water to achieve this. Now add the capers, olives, sugar, vinegar, and 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Season to taste, then cook for 2 minutes.

To prepare the fish, season lightly with salt then dust with flour. Heat 1-2 tablespoons olive oil in a frying pan and cook the pieces of fish in it for 4-5 minutes or until golden. Put them in the pan of sauce. Cook for 5 minutes more over moderate heat. Remove the fish pieces to a serving dish and spoon the sauce over them. Serve at room temperature.

SHRIMP SPREAD

This flavorful shrimp paste is a perfect nosh for summer parties, or even a nice little thing to eat on crackers for lunch while reading a summer page-turner. The cilantro, cumin, lime and cayenne give it Mexican flavors. Leftover cooked salmon could be used instead of shrimp.

½ pound cooked shrimp (any size)

Zest and juice of 1 lime

2 teaspoons coarsely torn cilantro

½ teaspoon cumin

Dash cayenne (to taste)

About ¼ teaspoon salt (to taste)

3-4 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons room temperature butter

Put the shrimp into the bowl of a food processor. Add the lime zest, some drops of lime juice, 1 teaspoon of the cilantro, the cumin, a small dash of cayenne, the salt and 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Process until you have a rough but paste-like consistency.

Taste and add more lime, cilantro, cumin, cayenne, and salt as you see fit. Now add the butter and process again. Add more oil if necessary to get a spreading consistency, and keep tasting so you can adjust the flavors.

Pack into a small bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Leave for at least an hour so the flavors can marry before serving.

Keeps in the fridge for up to two days. (If you don’t have a food processor, you can make this using a pestle and mortar to break up the shrimp, mixing the other ingredients in bit by bit.)