Great food comes at a cost, and sometimes it’s no sleep and a lot of coffee, a long drive in the dark toward eastern Long Island and fish. There is unbelievable bounty there for those who know where to look and what to do with the information presented to them by current and sea, by the behavior of birds, by experience, by pure happenstance.
Someone got lucky late this summer at the Butterfish Hole, 15 miles off Montauk as the gannet flies, nailed a 40-pound yellowfin tuna and took it home to share with the neighborhood. A few of us seared steaks on the grill. Others cut slabs of loin for backyard sashimi with wasabi and soy sauce, patterned the fish over vinegared rice for dinnertime chirashi, drizzled the pieces with olive oil and flaky sea salt to make boards of crudo, all you can eat. There is a lot of meat on a 40-pound yellowfin tuna. A few weeks later, a friend went out for striped bass and found none, but was able to stick a doormat fluke on the way back to the dock, and that led to more delicious eating: fingers of fish fried in a pan on a propane hob behind his house, served with tartar sauce and a thatch of supermarket coleslaw.
Here one day was a pile of porgies — pork chops, some call them, for their shape — caught in deep water and excellent on the grill, whole, with herbs and lemon. (Thanks, Dave!) Another day there was black sea bass from the rips of rough water that lead out from the lighthouse, fat and sweet, good for roasting under a skim of Korean red-pepper paste thinned out with cream. That was caught by Kerry, and it was fantastic. Stevie found weakfish in a honey hole he knows in Noyack Bay, and if I think that species a little slack and flabby on the plate, he loves it baked below mayonnaise and mustard, with cracker crumbs as crust. (There’s no accounting for taste.)
As for me, I was out with a friend off the south shore of Shinnecock at the start of the fall run this year, the water cooling, the fish beginning to move south. We were fishing in the sort of boat the authorities are talking about when they issue small-craft advisories in the face of bad weather. No one had seen false albacore yet, the little tunny, but we knew they were coming, and striped bass too, alongside schools of chopper bluefish, yellow eyes gleaming. We ran from the inlet a few miles, then back, then back again, looking for action. It wasn’t meant to be a food trip. False albacore are fun to catch but taste terrible. They’re no good to eat. Striped bass may be delicious but I haven’t killed one in years. There aren’t enough of them, in my view. They’re worth more in the water. Of course — and this is how thinking goes on a fishing trip, as the hours unspool — smoked bluefish is a very good thing. So is bluefish ceviche. So maybe we’d take one of those. Maybe, if any bluefish showed. But meat was not the objective of the day.
Until, that is, we saw shearwaters diving in the distance and ran to them and found Atlantic bonito beneath, crashing bait on the surface, practically jumping into the boat. This was great luck. Atlantic bonito is phenomenally delicious: a two- or three-pound football of a fish from the mackerel family that looks like a miniature tuna. It certainly tastes like one. We took five, cutting their gills to bleed them out, then put them on ice and started our long trip home. I thought about eating them the whole way back.
My plan: Long Island poke, a Northeastern take on a Hawaiian classic, the bonito taking the place of the traditional yellowfin. I’d fillet the fish, cut out its blood line, trim and cube it carefully, then mix the meat with sesame oil and soy sauce, a little chile-garlic sauce, a lot of chopped scallions, then top the whole thing with roasted macadamia nuts and a few vigorous shakes of furikake, a Japanese seasoning made of sesame seeds, dried fish and seaweed, salt and sugar and sometimes monosodium glutamate.
This turned out to be the most delicious thing I’d eaten in weeks, a perfect meal above a mound of room-temperature rice. When I went fishing again the following Saturday, the bonito were gone, so I caught false albacore instead and released them to the water. When I got home, I went to the store for sushi-grade tuna and made the dish again. It was exactly as great. Of course the tuna cost a lot more than the bonito did. That’s the trade-off, money or time spent fishing. It’s worth it either way.
Recipe: Tuna Poke