The Bluefish, or Pomatomus saltatrix is the only member of the Pomatomidae family, and a popular gamefish in New England. They generally inhabit the water surrounding Martha’s Vineyard from May through October, retreating southward and offshore as water temperatures drop in the fall. Equipped with a mouthful of sharp pointed teeth, bluefish are well known for their voracious feeding habits as well as their willingness to strike almost any type of bait or artificial lure with vigor. When hooked, they put up a fight that can outshine much larger species of fish, showing a dogged determination that equals their ravenous appetites. One look into their angry yellow eyes and you know they mean business. While they are respected as a gamefish, bluefish are often overlooked as table fare, many people claim that they taste too “fishy.” Bluefish are a fairly oily fish, but when prepared right, they can be absolutely delicious. As with any fish, freshness in the most important factor. “Blues” have very strong digestive enzymes that can lead to quick spoilage, so it is important to get the fish on ice as soon as possible. Many people also “bleed” their fish by slicing through the gills or tails and letting the blood pump out. Some also insist that the fish should be gutted when caught. While we usually bleed our fish, we seldom bother with gutting them.
One of our favorite methods for cooking bluefish is to slowly smoke it on a grill or charcoal smoker, and use the finished product to make a paté. We start by brining our filets in a solution of 1/2 cup salt and a 1/2 cup brown sugar dissolved in a quart of cold water. You can tailor the brine to your individual taste, adding soy sauce, a dash or two of hot sauce, or a bay leaf, for example. The brine adds flavor, and helps to keep the fish from drying out during the smoking process. We usually put our filets in a gallon sized zip-lock bag and place them in the ‘fridge for about three hours, but you can let them go for longer if you like. When the three hours are up, we remove the filets, rinse them, and set them on a wire rack over a baking sheet to dry. Smoke doesn’t stick well to wet surfaces, so you want the surface of the fish to dry out and form a sort of skin, called a “pellicule”. Many sources call for leaving the fish out to dry at room temperature, claiming that the preservative nature of the salt cure will prevent any spoilage. We still prefer to dry our filets in the refrigerator, just to be safe. Average sized filets are usually ready in about three hours. Once the pellicule has formed, we sprinkle them with a bit of paprika for color, and fire up the smoker.
Since bluefish has a strong taste, we use wood chips that produce a heavier flavored smoke, such as hickory. When the smoker is around 200ºF, we add the presoaked wood chips to the coals, and put the filets skin-side down on the grill grates.
After roughly three hours on the smoker at 175º to 200º, the filets should take on a deep honey brown color. They should have a good smoky crust, but still remain moist on the inside. When they are done, we remove the filets from the grill and set them aside to cool. Once cooled, we separate the skin from the meat being careful to remove any bones and gather ingredients for the paté.
We like this recipe from Food & Wine, even if it is based one from a Nantucket restaurant.
The Worcestershire sauce echoes the wood smoke flavor, and the hot sauce adds a pleasant spice. The acidity of the lemons and the bright, sharp flavors of parsley, onion and chives balance out the fish perfectly. Spread on toast or crackers, and you have a classic New England appetizer, perfect for any summer occasion.
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