The Atlantic Bonito, Sarda sarda, is a member of the Scombridae family, which includes tunas and mackerels. These fast, streamlined predators are identified by series of longitudinal stripes across the back. They usually arrive in Vineyard waters sometime in July and can stick around until mid to late October. Highly prized by local anglers for their ability to peel line off of a reel like a fish twice its size, “Bones” average around 5 lbs. in these parts, while catches up to 10 lbs. are not uncommon. Bonito are sometimes mistaken for the far less edible False Albacore, a species that is often referred to as “Bonita”, adding to the confusion. Though not often sold commercially in the States, bonito is well regarded in Mediterranean countries, being sold both fresh and canned. The meat is similar to other tunas, with firm, pink to red flesh and a good amount of fat content.
To fillet the fish, we start by making a diagonal cut, just behind the pectoral fin, angled towards the head.
Next, we make a shallow cut along the back of the fish, staying clear of the dorsal fins. Using the spine as a guide, we continue to filet the meat away, opening the fish like a book. Don’t cut too deep on the belly side, or you’ll have to deal with the guts. For this fish, we turned to John Manikowski’s “Fish Grilled & Smoked” which is full of novel fish preparations and interspersed with great fishing stories, including a few that take place on Martha’s Vineyard. His Smoked Bonito with Green Sauce serves four to six as an appetizer.
Place two pounds of skinned bonito fillets in a dish, and season with a mixture of two tablespoons sea salt, two tablespoons sugar, one tablespoon coarse black peppercorns and one tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley. Rub the mixture on both sides, cover, and stash in the refrigerator for 30 to 45 minutes. Fire up your grill and prep it for smoke grilling. Manikowski, prefers using dried corn kernels to create what he calls a “soft smoke.” While that sounds intriguing, we’ve yet to try it, simply because we haven’t run out of our supply of wood chips yet. For this go-round, we used alder chips to provide the smoke, as they produce a more delicate flavor than your average hickory chips.
While you’re waiting for the fire to build, start putting together the green sauce. Place twelve medium green olives (pitted), four to six anchovy fillets, four cups of parsley leaves, a quarter cup of toasted pine nuts, the juice of half of a lemon and a tablespoon of Dijon mustard in a food processor. Puree the ingredients for half a minute, then add one half cup of olive oil and pulse just until combined.
The sauce can be kept, covered, in the refrigerator for about a week.
Once the fire is ready, (roughly medium heat, somewhere between grilling and smoking temperature) remove the fillets from the ‘fridge and scrape off most of the rub. Squeeze half of a lemon over the fish and place them on a well oiled grilled grate, over your wood chips, or smoke pan, if using one. Put the lid on your grill and let cook for twenty minutes or so. Turn the fillets and let cook for another twenty or twenty-five minutes, until deeply colored, and the fish feels firm when poked with a finger. The smoked fish is served warm, on pieces of pumpernickel bread, topped with the green sauce.
Bonito has a natural salty taste that compliments the sweetness of the sugar cure, as well as the smoky flavor provided by the wood chips. The lemon and parsley add a bit of bright punch to the peppery, smoky fish. Similar to a pesto, the green sauce is nutty, with a tangy olive flavor and a hint of anchovy that matches the fish. Served on dark, earthy pumpernickel that balances everything out, this recipe makes for a great appetizer, just in time for the MV Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.
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