Foraging for Food: Yellowfin Tuna

Labor Day weekend brought a trip to LBI for a few days of relaxation, friends, family, and good eating.  It also brought a generous invitation from my buddy John and his brother-in-law Frank to join them for some deep sea fishing on Saturday.  This one is gonna get a little wordy on the front end and a little visually graphic on the back end, just like an old fashioned orgy at Gore Vidal’s house.  That joke has no place on this blog but, as long as we’re breaking the fourth wall, this is going to be a MONSTER post.

I accepted the invitation almost immediately, then spent the following days nervous about whether I would end up being yet another visitor on the boat that vomits for 15 hours straight.  John dealt with a whole lotta anxious questions about how the day would unfold.

That look says, “I don’t understand what you are talking about, but I can already tell from the tone of your voice that I’m not going to like what you do in our kitchen when you get home.”

You might remember the Hard Four crew from last year when they saved me the head and collar from a 45 pound yellowfin.  Some of the stories from the boat, like the tournament last summer where they landed over 300 pounds of Bigeye tuna, are like food Cialis for me.  My excitement to see it all firsthand greatly outweighed the sea sickness fears.

The day started at 3:40 in the morning after a delirious night of sleep due to some questionable raw oysters.  The crew for the day was Frank, John, Colman (photographer of the tuna shot from last year), Captain Mike (or “Zoo”), Frank’s father-in-law Big Rich, and Whitney, Frank’s brother-in-law.  Solid crew.  Once on the boat,  all of us except Zoo passed out for the 3+ hour trip to Hudson Canyon, some (including myself) aided by a solid dose of Dramamine.

Once we arrived at the fishing grounds, we got out of the PFDs and waterproof suits we wore for the wet ride out and got ready to do some fishing.  Generally I just tried to stay out of the way at this point since I had no idea how anything worked.  After Frank, John, Colman, and Zoo moved around for 10-15 minutes we had eight lines spread out along the two outriggers and a couple teaser lines in the water.  Lots of high-fiving and general excitement for the day of fishing ensued.

Johnny and Me.  This was taken later in the day, but that was a lot of words in a row and a lot more to come.  Here’s a little thing: I was borderline unable to pee on the boat due to an inability to keep my balance and general stage fright.  I am still disappointed in myself for this

Within 10 minutes of getting the lines out, the distinct sound of line flying out of a reel filled our ears and Colman dropped the rod into his fighting belt.  We let the line run out for 20-30 seconds to see if any other fish in the school bit, but eventually pulled all other lines in to let Colman reel in the fish.

In apparently typical fashion, Colman told us that the fish on the line “felt small” and was “likely a skipjack”.  Eventually what looked like a keg with yellow tips came up off the port side, Frank gaffed it right behind the gills, and we were officially on the board.  Let’s just say that the feeling for me was like seeing Christie Brinkley in Vacation for the first time when I was 9.

A beauty of a Yellowfin.  Doesn’t do the size any justice but that was a large fish box.  Look at me using proper angling terms!

And then…. not much.  We had an awesome day of catching up with friends new and old, eating a ton of homemade deli sandwiches, listening to music and waiting for the lines to run out.  But, we didn’t see much action in the following 4-5 hours and headed back with just that one beautiful fish that made it all worthwhile.

I don’t think I had any understanding of how large the yellowfin was until we returned to LBI, I picked it up, and struggled mightily with its weight.

I think this picture was taken while I was taking a breath or something.  I was incredibly strained the whole time I held the fish and look way too relaxed in this foto

The yellowfin weighed over 60 pounds and generally looked like the most wonderful thing I had ever seen.  I had no business holding it since I had no part in reeling it in, but I still did everything short of a Tawny Kitaen on the hood of a Jaguar photo shoot with that fish.

Johnny on the left, Frank in the center.  They may never get how much this trip meant to me, and I may never understand why it meant so much to me.  I just love having a part in getting my own food, especially when it’s delicious.  Also, I have a double chin all the way up to my ears.  That can’t be healthy, right?

After a few more rounds of photo shoots with various combinations of people, Zoo got started cutting the loins out of the fish.  It was pretty impressive to watch and a reminder of what a perfect food tuna is with how much of it is edible.

It was extremely impressive how quickly Zoo took this thing apart.  Zoo was also a good reminder that I wish I had better nicknames.  He earned his due to some child modeling when he was younger and the 2000 Ben Stiller film Zoolander, but it’s also a good fishing captain nickname

The size of the slabs of meat coming off had me salivating, but of course I was also pretty excited for the stuff that was leftover.

Ridiculous looking meat coming off that fish

Zoo was nice enough to leave the organs all intact on the tuna since they are mostly contained within the area inside the collar.  I asked around to make sure no one else was hoping to take home the body.  Much to my surprise there wasn’t a ton of interest, so, lucky me.

That’s the stomach hanging out of the head area.  It’s never good when you are excited for a food that dogs sniff at then slowly back away from without sampling

After wrapping the body in a few layers of trash bags with the help of Big Rich, I gave the requisite hugs and handshakes all around, grabbed a share of the loin meat, and headed to the car.  The body rode in the front with Kristi (she was extremely excited about this) while Janet rode in the back with her fishy smelling father.

Once back at our Beach Haven house, I took a quick shower then brought the tuna into the kitchen.

Big Rich helped me avoid disaster the first time I bagged this and forgot that the tuna’s razor sharp teeth would make short work of a trashbag. Fell right out onto the dock and almost into the water when I confidently lifted the bag to leave. Definitely one of the stupider moments in a long line of stupid moments on this blog

After laying down newspaper on the counter topped with plastic cutting boards and breaking out a cleaver and rubber mallet, I called in Marshall and Michael (at our house for the night) to take a look.  While they mobilized I pulled the body out of the bag and the scene they walked in on can only be described as crime scene-esque.

Didn’t take into account how much blood would be in the bag. Can’t beat the joke Marshall made when he showed me the photo and simply said, “Peter cooking”

First step was to remove all of the meat from between the ribs, the backstrap, and the belly strip and chop them all up to make a tuna tartare.  Then, I planned to separate the spine from the head and remove the majority of the organs to either throw away with the bones/tail or store them overnight in the fridge with the head.

There was a remarkable amount of tender delicious meat hiding in the nooks and crannies of the body.

From my experience salt baking fish, I’ve discovered that the meat between the ribs is often some of the best but the biggest pain to collect.  Most of the rib meat was easy to scoop out and the back/belly strips came off in long pieces.  Just awesome

After 10 minutes of mining I had over a pound of perfect looking meat.  I chopped the tuna coarsely and mixed it in a bowl with toasted sesame oil, siracha, ginger, salt, and a diced homemade pickle that was part of a batch we brought down from Boston.  The bowl headed into the fridge to cool down (the tuna was still warm, yikes) and for the the flavors to come together a bit.

While that rested, I got to work on mining the organs from the head.

Thanks to Marsh for the gigantic Mount Gay and tonic that kept me company through this process.  This shot is important to make clear that I am not insane for my love of tuna heads. Look at all the meat on that collar!

After removing the stomach Mooman insisted on emptying its contents and found what looked like a pound of whole squid.  Not edible since it had been sitting in stomach acid, but pretty crazy to see.  Threw away all that and the other unidentifiable organs but gave the heart and liver a thorough cleaning and bagged them for revisiting the following day.

The liver was a lot firmer than any other liver I had handled before, as was the heart.  Both are quite good when marinated and grilled, though I recognize I am going to have to sell them a hell of a lot better than that to get my friends to eat them after seeing this post

After wrapping up the head and getting everything in the fridge I was ready to serve the tartare.  Went with the simple route of serving with tortilla chips though I think it would have been even better with those addictive black rice crackers they have at Whole Foods.

This was a good-sized ceramic bowl and it represented about half of the tartare.  Lot of meat on that body. It didn’t stand a chance though, the six of us took the whole pile down within fifteen minutes.  Not the best fotos in this post but our LBI house has the lighting of a morgue in a horror film

The tartare was awesome with the ginger, hot sauce, sesame oil, and pickle adding good contrasting but not overwhelming flavor to the buttery, rich tuna meat.  It was so good.

With another cocktail on the deck we all headed to bed and I looked forward to dealing with the remainder of the butchery the following day.  Using a combination of the cleaver and a rubber mallet, I was planning to remove the collar from the head (without losing any fingers), then remove the gills from inside the head.  This post is abysmally long at this point, so I will cut to late in the grisly carnage.

Knew this was going to get messy due to the amount of blood in the gills so I lined the counter with pizza boxes this time around.  This looks awful but it barely competes for top ten worst fotos on this blog and there is at least some positive stuff going on here

The mallet and cleaver were so crucial as a pair this time around.  Instead of having to take big inaccurate hacks to get through tough spots, you can place the cleaver and then hammer it through.  Much better for my poor level of hand-eye coordination.

I disposed of the gills before rinsing the head and collars in the sink and separating the collar pieces along the jaw line.  Which yielded this:

So much friggin’ meat on those collars, like the tomahawk ribeye of the tuna.  One of the best grilling pieces of fish I have ever come across

The loins run from the nose to the tail, and unlike the tail that is filled with sinew and tendons, the head meat is delicious and tender.  Can’t wait to roast this whole thing

And thats it.  Future weeks will detail the meals I created with all of this meat.  They will also be much shorter posts.

Thanks again to Frank and John and the whole Hard Four crew for an experience that has had me glowing and stuffed ever since.  Just an incredible weekend.

Definitely more to come on all of this.

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6 thoughts on “Foraging for Food: Yellowfin Tuna

  1. Pete, really good description of the whole experience! I could have kept reading until you were through with the last little nasty bits of this beast! Keep writing, you bring us right into the heart of the experience every time. Thanks

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