If you are into light tackle fishing, Martha’s Vineyard is hard to beat, especially in September and October when the local waters are invaded by large schools of hard charging “Little Tunny”, a fish more often referred to as “False Albacore” or more simply, “Albies.” As we mentioned in our piece on the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass & Bluefish Derby these small tuna relatives are known for many things, their beautiful markings and torpedo-like shape, their speed and strength when hooked and most notoriously, their inedibility. While anglers from North Carolina to Cape Cod will spend inordinate amounts of money on gear, gas and tackle pursuing these speedsters, they are usually released, or cut into strips to be used as bait for other species.
If you ask most fishermen, they’ll tell you that the meat is too dark, too “fishy” or too bloody. A quick internet search for False Albacore (often called “Bonita” in Florida, not to be confused with Atlantic Bonito, which is quite tasty) will turn up many stories about how terrible the fish is, many of them involving the family cat turning up its nose at fresh Albie meat. Many “recipes” for False Albacore go something like this, “Season fillet with salt and pepper, then grill on a cedar plank. When done, throw away fish and eat plank.” Our favorite suggestion was to “Dig a hole in your garden, put the fish in the hole, then cover and plant tomatoes above the fish. Eat the tomatoes.” That said, we’ve been secretly curious about False Albacore for years, after all, it is a tuna, how bad could it be? This year, we decided we had to give it a try, what kind of adventurous food blog would this be if we were afraid of a little fish? It’s not like we were in Iceland, eating rotted, ammoniated shark that was buried in the ground or anything.
The Albie fishing has been exceptional on the Vineyard this late September/early October, so after catching and releasing scores of False Albacore, we finally decided to keep one. Because of their reputation for having dark, bloody meat, after landing the fish, we bled it by cutting across the gills and throat. Bleeding fish serves two purposes, it removes much of the blood, of course, but it also helps cool down the catch, as the fish builds up heat during the fight. After the fish was bled, we immediately put it on ice, hoping to preserve whatever “quality” it might indeed have. Filleting a False Albacore is very similar to dealing with Bonito, start by making a cut behind the pectoral fin, angled from belly to head. The smooth skin is surprisingly tough, and requires a fair bit of effort to pierce.
Working from head to tail, fillet the fish, letting your knife slide along the spine of the fish.
Make the cut on the belly side shallower to avoid the digestive track.
To skin the fillets, place them skin side down, and leaving yourself an inch or two as a handle, slice through the meat just until you reach the skin. Then, holding the knife at a slight angle towards the cutting board, pull the fillet back and forth towards the blade, keeping the knife stationary. It sounds a bit weird, but after a couple tries, you’ll find it to be an easy way to cleanly skin most fish.
While preparing the fillets, we tried a bit of the fish raw, as we had read a few reports of people eating it sashimi style. The texture wasn’t bad, but it tasted a bit “off.” EA found it to be bitter, and likened it to the flavor of apple peels, while KD found it to be excessively “fishy.” In our searches for a False Albacore recipe, we came across this preparation in The Martha’s Vineyard Cookbook. It is credited to Shirley Craig, Vineyard resident and spouse of Phillip R. Craig, author of the J.W. Jackson series of mystery novels and avid fisherman.
Shirley’s Grilled False Albacore calls for filleting and skinning one fish and then cutting it into “good sized chunks.” We took this opportunity to cut away the bloodline, or darkest portion of meat. This has the added benefit of removing almost all the bones that might be left in the fillets. The flesh is indeed a dark red color throughout, but there is still a distinct darker section closer to the spine. Next, we prepared the marinade, made with one half cup fresh lemon juice, a quarter cup olive oil, a teaspoon salt, a teaspoon dried oregano, three quarters of a teaspoon of garlic powder and a half teaspoon of fresh ground pepper. In an re-sealable plastic bag, we combined the fish chunks and marinade, tossed a few times to cover, and placed it in the refrigerator to rest overnight.
The following day, we started a fire in our Weber using hardwood lump charcoal and let the grill grates get good and hot. After oiling the grates with a paper towel soaked with vegetable oil to prevent sticking, we threw the chunks of fish on the grill. As it cooked, it smelled inoffensive, not too different from Bonito, and certainly very different from what we had been led to believe. We grilled the chunks for a few minutes a side, until they had picked up a bit of char and some distinct grill marks. Once the fish had cooked a bit, it lost its red color and turned more gray, like-over cooked tuna or even pork chops. Undeterred by its less than appetizing appearance, we sampled the fish without accompaniment, hoping to savor (or loathe) the true essence of False Albacore.
Honestly, we were a bit disappointed. We really expected it to be much, much worse. The exterior had a bright lemon tang that while not unpleasant, but was fairly strong. Once you got into the interior of the fish, it tasted more or less like a darker, more brooding version of canned tuna. There was a bit of smoky funk, reminiscent of smoked oysters from a tin, or a weird smoked fish spread that you tried on a cracker at a party in the ‘80s, but overall, nowhere near as bad as we had secretly hoped for. Yeah, it was fishy, but no more so than some bluefish dishes we’ve had. With the prominent lemon flavor and oregano, it was not that far away from many standard bluefish preparations. The lemon juice probably firmed the flesh up a good deal, pickling it a bit and drawing out some of the natural oils, and with such a long marinade time, it is hard to say what the fish would taste like with a simpler preparation, but it wasn’t terrible. That’s not to say we would recommend it. While it was certainly edible, it simply wasn’t worth the effort when there are so many better tasting species of fish out there. Let’s just say that if stranded on a deserted island with enough lemon trees, there would be far worse things to survive on then fresh caught False Albacore.
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