Cleaning Out My Cabinets: Blowfish

We spent July 4th down in LBI with our friends John and Liz since the Ryan residence is still out of commission from Sandy.  As mentioned last week, I was a typically awful houseguest: serving offal to unsuspecting children, snoring on couches, and complaining about hot pepper juice I rubbed in my own eyes.   There was no fishing or clamming on this trip, but lots of relaxation on the beach and deck.

Sure, looks like she is relaxing, but she is just as neurotic as her father.  Notice the feet curled up on the chair to not touch the beach, the calming container of Pirates Booty, the sunglasses that were called for nonstop until they were presented?  She's a mess sometime

Sure, looks like she is relaxing, but she is just as neurotic as her father.  Notice the feet curled up on the chair to not touch the beach, the calming container of Pirates Booty, the sunglasses that were called for nonstop until they were presented?  She’s a mess sometimes

However, on a ride down LBI Boulevard the first day to pick up food for dinner, I noticed that a few of the seafood shops were advertising blowfish on their signs.  Not only advertising them, but doing so excitedly (meaning: exclamation marks).

"Hey, Pete, really been enjoying the photos on the blog lately.  One request, can you start taking more pictures from very far away?  Like far enough that it isn't clear what you are trying to show us?  Thx!"

“Hey, Pete, really been enjoying the photos on the blog lately.  One request, can you start taking more pictures from very far away?  Like far enough away that it isn’t clear what you are trying to show us?  Thx!”

If you look really closely, so closely that you’re not really sure whether you are actually seeing it or just pretending you can see it, you’ll see that the sign says “Blowfish are back!”.  That sign is there because, well, blowfish are back, and you should be excited about that.  Me, I was pretty excited.  You ‘cited?

I’d definitely encountered a couple blowfish diving over the years, but I’ve never cooked or even seen them in their cleaned, raw form before.  Aside from the early Simpsons fugu episode where Homer almost dies from eating poisonous blowfish, I can’t say I had even thought of them as food, really.  I guess they are relatively innocuous looking.

Not my foto.  I believe I there is a blowfish in FInding Nemo and/or The Little Mermaid but I've never seen either so I don't have a witty quip related to those characters.  But, you can imagine me making some comment about eating that character's name and ruining your childhood memories and such and such.  Bringing my A game with that one

Not my foto.  I believe there is a blowfish in Finding Nemo and/or The Little Mermaid but I’ve never seen either so I don’t have a witty quip related to those characters.  But, you can imagine me making some comment about eating <character’s name> and ruining your childhood memories and such and such.  Bringing my A game with that spoof

But, I mean, seriously?  This is food?

Again, not my foto.  Just a bunch of blowfish hanging out, gabbin', inflating and stuff

Again, not my foto.  Just a bunch of blowfish hanging out, gabbin’, inflating and stuff.  Looks like a pretty decent time if you ask this blowhard.  Ever seen this tactic before on here?  It’s called stalling, and I do it when I only have three fotos of the actual cooking because it was so straightforward and simple.  Shhhh!  Don’t tell the caption non-readers

When we went into Boulevard Clams, I had no idea what the blowfish meat would look like;  I would have believed anything from a deflated basketball to a beautiful fillet.  But, what they actually looked like was entirely logical.  Almost boringly logical.

I took a bunch of pictures of the contents of this package and somehow this was the best one.  They were as dark and slightly red in color as they look here, though

I took a bunch of pictures of the contents of this package and somehow this was the best one. They were as dark and slightly red in color as they look here, though

The general anatomy and how much of those fishies were edible was a complete mystery to me, and as usual the yokels at the store weren’t much help.  What do they taste like: “chicken”, how do you eat them: “like chicken”, whats the best way to cook them: “jest fry ’em up”.  I know, we were in New Jersey, not some backwoods locale, but good lord were these guys unhelpful and yokelish.  That said, they have a customer for life as long as they carry blowfish every season, and for $9.99 a pound no less.

With no creative cooking ideas and not wanting to stink up the house frying things inside, I decided to keep it relatively simple and put a sautee pan over medium/high heat.  While it heated, I salted and peppered each piece of blowfish.  Once the pan was hot, I added a little olive oil and a couple cloves of chopped garlic then the blowfish.  What I meant there was, once the pan was way hotter than it should have been I added all that stuff.

After a couple minutes on one side, I flipped the fish, added a solid pour of rosé (it was open), and put the lid on to finish the cooking.

I know, I know, I burned the garlic.  I struggle mightily with electric ranges and pretty much every pan I used that weekend was about 100 degrees too hot for whatever I was trying to cook in it.  I blame electricity

I know, I know, I burned the garlic.  I struggle mightily with electric ranges and pretty much every pan I used that weekend was about 100 degrees too hot for whatever I was trying to cook in it.  I blame electricity

After another 3-4 minutes I moved the fish to a plate, reduced the last of the wine in the pan to thicken into a sauce, and poured it over the fish.  A little squeeze of lemon over the top, and it was ready to be served.

It looks a little funky, but you really can't go wrong with the olive oil, garlic, wine, and lemon combo.  Plus it smells decent enough that it's an easy sell to those who would be otherwise terrified

It looks a little funky, but you really can’t go wrong with the olive oil, garlic, wine, and lemon combo.  Plus it smells decent enough that it’s an easy sell to those who would be otherwise terrified

After tuna fishing last year, I babbled about what a perfect fish tuna is for how easily the loins come off and how much is edible.  I was even more impressed with the blowfish.  The spine is directly attached to the fins on the top and bottom and has a flat center bone that runs up the whole fish.  The meat comes off in two large pieces, one on each side of the spine with no bones in the meat, and no other picking needed.

As far as the taste, I don’t know if this was extremely fresh or something, but it was much much better than I expected.  The meat was rich and slightly sweet with none of the fishy flavor you expect from a darker-meat fish.  The texture was buttery and soft like properly cooked cobia, and the collagen from cooking on the bone coated your lips when you ate it.  As usual I base whether or not I am the only one who would find it tasty on the reactions of others, and three people besides myself ate the blowfish and had seconds.  Including Kristi.  See!  I don’t always just make up the fact that things taste good, sometimes its true and stuff!

Hopefully more fish for next week, if I can figure out when the sketchy docks in Little Compton open this time around.

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.

Foraging For Food: Blue Crabs

My first crabbing trip was with a group of friends in late July 2008, long before I became an expert clammer.   Crabbing is somewhat similar to clamming; you pack a cooler, go to Pollys, get advice from some drunks, pay $80 for your boat and then head out into the bay.

Conor looks remarkably interested in a conversation that probably amounted to, "Show you jwanna go out to dose sticks and crab cuz dats where da crabs are."

The difference is that it requires some gear (a long string with a weight and hook), and some rotten bunker fish to use as bait.  Also, instead of knee deep water, you crab in 6-8 feet of depth.

After purchasing the gear and bait, we loaded into two boats to head out to the crabbing grounds.

You know, just your normal cool dudes, drinkin some brews and hangin' out on some boats

The best place to crab near our house in Beach Haven is not far from where we go clamming.  Its a bunch of PVC pipes sticking out of the water that mark where the commercial crab traps are set.  You just go near them, drop anchor, and start cutting up the bunker fish.

Con doing the dirty work. Note the PVC pipes in the back and my voluptuous 2008 profile doing it's best "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" impression

Once the piece of bunker is on the string you lower it to the bottom of the bay, wait a little bit, then slowly pull it up and hope there is a crab on it.  But, most of the time there isn’t, and the rest of the time the crab that is on the line is too small to keep.

King Crab makes an appearance on the blog! That bucket in my hand was supposed to be filled with crab

After five hours confined to the boat we had caught zero keeper crabs.  Every crab that was big enough to keep had a giant yellow baseball growing out the back of it showing that it was pregnant.  Although a delicacy in some cultures, it’s illegal to keep pregnant crabs in NJ.  So, after some sunburned drunken grabassing with the final few crabs we caught, we called it a day.

Remember this, I believed I knew the secret to grabbing a crab without getting pinched by this point

I can’t say that my first crabbing trip was my favorite thing I had ever done; it was frustrating and I stunk like bunker fish for a couple days.  It was fun being on boats with friends, but I’d rather just drop the crabbing.  Then I discovered clamming last year and swore off of crabbing for good.  Or so I thought.

On labor day weekend, we finally bought a fishing rod for the beach house and headed down to Barnegat Light, on the opposite end of Long Beach Island, to go fluke fishing. Since brother Tim, Kristi, and I are pretty inept when it comes to saltwater fishing we were lucky to have Jason, one of the Hub Hollow gang, with us for the trip.

I like my end of the island more, but this is a nice view

Fluke fishing seems simple enough; put some squid and spearing on a fluke rig hook, drop it to the bottom on a 2 pound weight, and keep tension on the line.  Feel a bite and reel it in.  After fifteen minutes or so Jason pulled in the first catch of the day: a shark.

Not quite as terrifying as they make it look on those swordfisherman reality shows. Wussies.

It was a little over a foot long and, just because it was a shark, I got a little scared taking the hook out and Jason had to step in.  I’ve never claimed to be a real man.

The next catch happened about a half hour later. A fluke, otherwise known as a summer flounder.

The other side is all white since it lays flat on the bottom

As we pulled it up over the side, I was positive it was a keeper.  The minimum size requirement was 18″ and ours came in at… 17.  I was heartbroken but had high hopes based on our early catches.  However, in the following three hours we took an exciting tour of Barnegat Bay but didn’t catch any more fish.

What we did catch were a few crabs that were too stupid to let go of our bait before we reeled it all the way in.  When the first one came over the edge, I was surprised to find that it was keeper size and reached out to grab it in the one place I thought it couldn’t pinch me.  I was wrong.

I was supposedly screaming, "take the f*cking picture" through gritted teeth. Allegedly

The one on the nail didn’t hurt, but the one on the side hurt a lot and drew blood.  It ended up taking over a minute to pry it loose using a couple knives.  Once it was off, I dropped it in a bucket and began to taunt it verbally by telling it how much I was going to enjoy eating it.  I don’t think anyone in the boat thought I was serious at this point.  But when we pulled a second crab in, it sealed the deal and I decided we would keep and cook these little jerks.

This one was mean, it would snap at shadows cast in the bucket

The rest is pretty simple.  We drove home with me staring at the two crabs while everyone else in the car wondered if I was losing my mind.  Once we got home, they got rinsed quickly and went into a hot steamer pot that had white wine vinegar and saltwater in the base.

I recognized my lunacy at this point, but that wasn't going to stop me from cooking them

After fifteen minutes they were fully cooked and I got down to picking the meat from the claws and body and dipping it in drawn butter.  There was no time to pause for fotos in this process but here is the aftermath:

I half-heartedly invited everyone to share the crabs then angrily gave them bad parts when they took me up on it

And that was it.  I hope to get down to LBI in May next year for the start of fluke and crab fishing since I think our lack of luck had to do with being late in the season both times.

Next week might be a weak-ish post like this one, but then I got some good plans for the following few weeks.  Stick with me.

Foraging for Food: Clams

As mentioned in the mussels post, I love the rewarding experience of finding your own food, and shellfish are an easy target.  Last September I went clamming for the first time in Little Egg Harbor on the bayside of Long Beach Island, NJ.  I was immediately hooked.

I was so desperate to go clamming again that I tried again in late April of this year during a “heat wave” that brought temperatures all the way up to 68 degrees.

The wind was absurd and I couldn't feel my legs but I still got 80 clams in about an hour (not shown: two freezing MBA students and a sig other wrapped in blankets and begging me to leave)

The water was freezing and my companions refused to exit the boat, but the expedition was fruitful and I couldn’t wait to go again once it was warmer.  This post is about that eventual trip.

We spent the Fourth of July with friends from college in the Harvey Cedars area of Long Beach Island.  I spent the weeks leading up to the trip babbling incessantly about clamming and generally making everyone look into other options for how to spend their fourth.  Despite my annoying aggressiveness, everyone agreed to join the clamming trip and planned for Saturday morning.

Normally the best time time to head out for clamming is one or two hours before low tide.  This allows you to have a few hours of clamming at the shallowest tide-level possible.  Low tide was unfortunately at 8:45 AM, and even though we are eight years out of college, that just wasn’t going to happen.  We decided to shoot to leave the house at 8:30 for the half hour ride to the dock.

At around 7:30 I started anxiously pacing around the house. 7:45 I started passive aggressively asking people when they would be ready to leave. By 8:15 I started to throw a tantrum.  I was put into time out in the passenger seat of the car at 8:30 when the first group headed out.

After meeting up with my brother and a bunch of our mutual friends in Beach Haven we all walked over to Pollys boat dock at around 9:30.

The laundry basket is an essential part of clamming

We ended up piling the 16 of us into three boats for the ten minute ride out to the clamming grounds.

You know you are way too excited for a 30 year old when you break out the old double thumbs up.

And we're off!

The type of clamming we were doing, mucking (more on that later), is easiest when done in very shallow water.  Because of that, eventually the props start hitting bottom and the boats need to be pulled in for the final stretch.

I, inexplicably, really enjoy this part. It takes ten minutes or so and it's tiring but it was a beautiful day and the water was warm

The toughest part of the walk in is that you are stepping on tons of clams but every time I bent over to grab one, the momentum of the extremely heavy boat would slam it into me. Most intelligent adults would have learned their lesson after the first time but I tried at least ten times.

I was pretending I wasn't really winded at this point, but at least we were at the grounds

Once we got there and got settled (i.e. opened our first beers) I started to explain how clam mucking works.  It’s pretty simple; you walk around barefoot and when you step on something hard its a clam, so you dig it up with your hand and put it in the basket.

Given how much I like to talk, I probably took 5 minutes to explain what came after the semicolon in the sentence above. Hence people starting to walk away out of boredom

We started out a little slow but the clams pile up quick.

The laundry basket is perfect for clamming because the clams can be contained while staying in the water

One of the best parts of clamming, for those adventurous enough to try it, is opening up a few clams along the way and eating them raw.  I made a cocktail sauce the night before from ketchup, spicy horseradish and lots of lemon juice to compliment the clams.

Showing how to open a clam, note the cocktail sauce in the ketchup bottle under my arm

Dupee, Jason, and John particularly enjoyed the raw clams and spent a lot of the day in this huddled formation opening and eating them. Tim and Eliza used the Master Blaster (little Mad Max reference) method for finding clams.

In about an hour the basket was about halfway full.

This photo could be from any clamming trip; I will always have that look on my face that says I want to get more

You are probably thinking that this narcissistic photo is completely irrelevant and unnecessary, but it's my blog and it makes me feel better about my doughy self.

Not much effort is required for clamming, mostly it’s just enjoying a nice day with friends and hanging out on the water.

Nice pic of Master Blaster and Jill

Macey was a trooper, and even provided a perfect soundtrack for the Jersey Shore with her rendition of Bad Romance

We ended up with around 400 clams after a few hours.  A great haul of fresh shellfish.

The almost full basket was a great way to get a fresh hernia, we got some more after this but had to empty half of it into a cooler before loading the basket in the boat

Special thanks to Erin for all of the great fotos (and Liz for her shot as well).  I would have ruined my camera if I attempted to document this myself

Next post will have some close-ups of the scrubbed clams and some of the many dishes we turned them into.  Can’t wait to go again in August.