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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Weird Crap I Cook: Yellowfin Tuna Collar (Hamachi Kama)

Generally I enjoy all types of seafood and have loved sushi since I was first introduced to it when I was ten years old.  Tuna, in all varieties, has always been my favorite raw fish and I would guess I consumed 10 pounds of freshly caught raw Yellowfin tuna at the Four Seasons in Bora Bora (our honeymoon, but I am name dropping) in a 5 day period.  That trip got me addicted to raw tuna.

Oddly, I am not a fan of cooked tuna and won’t order it at most restaurants unless I am sure it will come out rare.  The only exception is tuna collar which I was introduced to by a Bizarre Foods episode a few years ago.  I first tried it at Jaes Grill in Brookline (now defunct) and found it to be very tasty and moist despite being completely cooked through.  Ever since I have ordered it whenever I see it on a menu.

RIP Jae's. Your awful signage didn't give proper credit to your enjoyable pan-Asian cuisine and surprisingly decent sushi

To continue this extremely long lead-in, for years I have been jealous of my buddy John and his tuna fishing trips with his brother in-law Frank.  Last year Liz (John’s wife) sent me a picture of the 130+ lb Bigeye tuna they caught and had me drooling at the huge slabs of meat they were pulling off.  I also noted that the fish head was being disposed of which is what 99% of fishermen would do (and what the Ryans did on our fishing trip).  Since I knew the collar was on there somewhere, and that I needed blog material, I asked him to save me the head of the next big tuna they got.

Lots of background.  Anyhoo, I nearly pooped my pants when I saw this text from John a week ago, “Got you a tuna head dawg.  From a 45lb Yellowfin.”  Well then.

Best picture message I have ever received. Big thanks to Frank Coulson, Mike Kirwan, Johnny, and Colman Currie (not pictured) for sharing their catch

When they butchered the Yellowfin, the head was wrapped in a few trash bags and placed in the freezer awaiting a visit from the Ryans.

Liz, Griff, Janet, Kristi. Griff is about 8 months older than Janet but I am pretty sure he was hitting on her

After hanging out at Liz’s (John’s wife) family house on Tuesday and Wednesday, including some sampling of the fresh Yellowfin, the frozen head came back to the Ryan LBI house.  Where it sat in the fridge ominously for a few days.

From my hogs head experience, I knew this would take around 3 days to fully thaw. Which explains the surrounding clams and leftover chowder from the weekend clamming festivities

I ended up waiting until Sunday to make an attempt at this.  My main problem was the complete lack of online support on how to butcher a tuna head and remove the collar.  Nothing.  As I sat on the couch exhausted from my friend Lenny’s bachelor party, I started trying to rationalize throwing out the head, but decided to give it a shot based on the few pictures of butchered collar I had seen online.

This move to the sink might not look like it, but it was a significant step

After cleaning up some tuna head leakage in the fridge, getting my knives ready, and setting up the counter with some cardboard for coverage, I removed the bags (4 of them to be exact).

No real way to give size perspective here. My guess is it was heavier than Janet and less heavy than the hogs head. I didn't enjoy that framing at all and will avoid dragging Janet's name into comparisons like that in the future

The collar is the area between the gill slit and the back edge of the skull (where the head was cut from the main body of the fish).  I think.  I don’t have any action shots in this post since I was supposed to be making pasta with clam sauce for Mommy Ryan and Kristi Ryan.  I advised them both to not enter the kitchen since I was, “doing some other stuff too”.

As I probed around the head, I saw that what I thought was the collar needed to be carefully cut away from the gills and hacked away from the top of the skull and the bottom as well.  I also observed that most of a Yellowfin tuna’s organs are located inside the skull.  After some careful trimming, dulling of my knives cutting through bones, and near finger losses, I came away with this:

Was able to remove both collars in one piece. I don't think that was an accomplishment, just the easiest way to do it

Leaving just the tip of the head in the sink.

Had two angles on this shot, but this one is nicer to look at. I considered trying to find a way to eat the eyes but realized I didn't truly enjoy eating eyes last time and there was other gross stuff to enjoy

First step was making a cut through the bone on the bottom side of the collar to separate it into two pieces.

The cardboard was essential. I should have tarped the walls as well since the kitchen was starting to look like a crime scene by this point

Removing the fins was very difficult and I did a job that would make any sushi chef cry in agony.  The first collar was removed mostly by pulling which tore some of the meat away; the second side was a lot of big swings with a heavily dulled knife at that point.  Then there was a ton of careful trimming of any bloody spots, areas close to the gills, and a rinse to remove what looked like small scales.  Eventually, I ended up with a couple poorly butchered Yellowfin tuna collars.

I wish I could produce something that looks well butchered just once in my life, but since I cook everything adventurous exactly once, I am never proficient enough to make it look nice

As I mentioned previously, there were indeed a few interesting organs hiding inside the head and neck.  I threw away the gullet and some stomach fat, but rinsed and kept the two organs that were easiest to recognize: the liver and heart.

The liver was easily recognizable, but I fell back on recollection of Bizarre Foods to recognize the heart

At this point I stepped away and reassessed.  I honestly didn’t think I would end up with anything edible, so I had to decide on the fly how I would cook everything.  The grill seemed like a logical choice, and after starting it I searched the cabinets and fridge.  I ended up mixing together a marinade/basting liquid of soy sauce, sesame oil, minced garlic, and a lot of brown sugar.

The brown sugar was a prominent part of a recipe for whole roasted Bluefin tuna head and sounded like an excellent idea. I took note of that whole concept for a future post

After the grill had heated up for ten minutes or so, the collars and organs went on.

The organs look pretty innocuous, but for some reason the collar looks disgusting in the early grill pictures

I left the gas grill on high and shut the lid for 5 minutes before flipping the liver and heart while the collars remained skin down with the lid open.

I brushed the leftover marinade on the collars a couple times during the cooking

After a few more minutes I pulled the organs off and flipped the collars.

These were dark to begin with, but charred sugars and soy sauce gave a dark on darker coloring contrast

About the crispiness and char I was hoping for. I wasn't planning to eat the skin or anything. That would be, you know, gross

While the collars cooked some more, I headed inside to sample the heart and liver.  At which point I discovered that my camera is now permanently in a Janet picture taking-friendly mode that does not take food detail shots well.

Here's the liver. It resembled every other cooked liver I have seen

Annnnnd the heart. This is about as rare as I wanted it and looked a lot like beef

The liver tasted like liver.  Liver with a mild fish flavor.  Not quite as strong as chicken/beef/pork liver but you could definitely tell what it was.  I was good with that after one bite.  The heart on the other hand was awesome.  Tasted like a great piece of rare tuna with the texture/density of a beef steak and a little bit of mineral flavor.  I would definitely eat that again, possibly raw if the tuna hadn’t been frozen.  Back to the collars.

The marinade gave the meat a great color. Wish the grill marks were a bit more pronounced, though

From my few experiences, there is no nice way to serve tuna collar which is likely a contributing factor to why it isn’t on more menus.  Anyone interested in eating it needs to pick pieces of meat off the bone using chopsticks, and there is no easy way to break it up into individual servings.

Although it looks like the first bite, it was actually the second. Had to clarify that since my hands have never looked this nice and Kristi was surprisingly game to try the collar

The collars were incredible.  This has less to do with my skills than the freshness and quality of the catch, but it was seriously delicious.  I generally think fully cooked tuna is fishier than the rare variety, but that wasn’t the case with the collar meat.  It’s very tender like the meat near the salmon skin, but not as fishy tasting and distinctly tuna.  My best impartial witness for claims like this is Kristi since she is not overly adventurous and hates fishy tasting/smelling seafood.  After one bite, she dove in, as did my mother, and it quickly became an appetizer feeding frenzy.

Last action shot I could pause for. It was actually an enjoyable part of the experience to pick around and look for a nice pocket of meat

The sweet and charred flavors from the marinade added heavily to the enjoyment and I would definitely use a similar marinade if I ever made this again.  After a few more bites, I left the dish for a short time to finish my pasta with clam sauce and returned to find this:

There were a few pieces of meat we missed, but I'll give this clean plate club status. Call it in Ma Dowley!

Final note to the post is that I really appreciated the tuna head from Hard Four crew and hope that they will think of me after future catches.  I will happily take any future tuna heads and do this again.  Same goes to any other readers who go tuna fishing, just give me a little notice and I will be there.  It’s a really, really good piece of meat.

No ideas for next week, will try to think of something.