Snug as a bug between 2 watery rugs (the Peconic bay and Long Island sound each within a mile’s easy reach), fresh fish of pretty damn good quality, though not necessarily luxurious, was readily available, and a bit further out some dayboats brought in sizeable finer creatures fetching a higher but still areasonable price. From the humdrum target practice bluefish to doormat fluke and even oysters, our fish-bins were well stocked, the fish in abundant supply, and the Southold Fish Market owner also acquired the venerable Sophie’s Rest, the most reliable tavern around for geriatrics with hard of hearing hard-ons for Led Zep, the Boss and the like; and pit stop on the way home for a consistently delectable $12 fried flounder sandwich with waffle fries that only a monster would dismiss.
Golden tilefish gently reeled up 100 grueling fathoms from Neptune’s quiet depths. Essentially a large blenny, they live in burrows on the ocean floor, are abundant and require deft angling hands to catch by rod & reel given the length of line and weight needed to get the bait all the way down there and back. The flesh is similar to grouper but firmer, lean, sweet and just less flaky than cod.
Delicious, and when ground smoothly the trimmings lend themselves well to a harlequin seafood bootylicious boudin, supplemented by diced domestic shrimp, cream, egg white, a bit of corn starch, Cheetos and some tiny cut vegetables cooked tender. Stuffed into hog casings, calmly poached, cooled, cut into little hockey pucks, the skin removed and then seared in, yup, clarified butter. Resourceful and efficient use of a fish.
From time to time we’d get some exceptional harpoon caught Canadian swordfish through Charlie over at the Southold Fish Market. It used to be that there was a healthy harpooning industry centered on Block Island between Rhode Island and Long Island. Those days of fishing off the bowsprit were slowly but surely wiped out by the disastrous yield of longlining, which all but decimated the Atlantic swordfish population (and caught plenty of bycatch), and now it is just those progressive and environmentally conscious Canucks who continue to pursue it, barely.
And then one bright summer day we got a (delayed) message (very limited Southold cell phone reception) from Eugene Burger saying he had a 120lb swordfish dangling on the line (not for long) for sale (71lbs dressed). Made some space in the cramped and worn kitchen and put that mighty creature on the slab.
Out of the water less than 24 hours it was pretty much the best swordfish I’ve experienced in terms of fresh/firm flesh, though some peach colored ones that likely gorged themselves of ruby shrimp or them red Swedish fish have come across my board.
Eugene also regaled us with a 160lb bigeye tuna specimen. Big animal, so-so color quality and took some considerable effort to bisect.
There was far more meat than time or demand and we were left to brine remaining 60lbs of tail/loin, sear and poach in oil the. Just as tasty as yellowfin, much better than Bluefin (too oily), but albacore is the goldilocks of tuna for processing/canning. Not too fatty or fishy when cooked, it’s just about right. Kind of looks like a penguin and those little bastards presumably fly through the water like little Red Barons.
Those tuna fish are a legitimate marvel of natural nautical engineering, with fins and paddles or whatever folding in neatly into fleshy grooves and flaps. Kind of like that 94” Pacific sailfish that had the terrible misfortune of biting a lure attached to a line leading to a reel in my hands on a Mexican fishing boat in which a friend and I were in.
Our portly Central American ballast-like co-captain bludgeoned the poor thing after it had swallowed the hook and attempts at releasing it would have been perilous for both parties. The frightened yet curious eye resembled a billiard ball sized prosthetic and the flimsy membrane sail slipped into a dorsal gasket like a window disappears into a car door. I felt tremendous culpability for taking such a majestic creature out of the life game, more so because the red flesh wasn’t nearly the crowd pleasing taco option as marlin smoked slowly over wood.
Phil down the road in Orient cashed in 25 years’ worth of Wall St cheese to get back into the water, waist deep, to raise oysters and rake for the occasional clams. He and his 2 man crew will spend the span of the year, from refreshing water in 98°F heat to the frigid testicle shrinking flow in below freezing winter. For the preferred customers, Phil’s oysters get the special tumbling treatment which breaks the outer shells and encourages the oyster to grow a deeper cup rather than a wider shell. The creek drains twice a day, the water clear as a crystal block, immaculate as a Vatican toilet and serves as storage for the bagged oysters, eliminating any need for those newfangled refrigerated boxes. Not too briny, exceedingly crisp and clean.
The local hallmarks however rarely get top billing or fetch a fancy price. Porgies are a thrifty perennial favorite for any weekend fisherman and in a former life they received a royal treatment worthy of a cheapskate glutton; packed plump with glazed root vegetables, cream, herbs, toasted bread and roasted whole for 2.
For a more enthusiastic East Coast struggle with the funny-stick however, few bargain fish rival the frenetic frenzy of bluefish and while the locals are in it just for sport, the occasional smoke but usually dog food. Brining and hot smoking is the generally invariable and only route. In lieu of mackerel, sardines or anchovies, we’d get those oily things still in rigor, stiff as morning wood. If those dudes and dogs only knew how much gooder they could have it.
Ira & KK’s little lettuces from down the road were best lathered with a Caesar dressing, befitting such crisp greens and hopefully well within the WASPy clientele’s hopelessly vapid flavor wheelhouse. Sure we used some salted Italian anchovies and salted capers for the sauce, a focaccia crouton with the obligatory parm-bla-bla, but for a $75 fixed price 3-course menu it yearned for a local product worthy of the appropriate luxury treatment.
Bluefish has an arrowslit window of opportunity or it gapes, becomes flabby and unworkable. At its finest, it butchers and skins well, though the skin becomes edible after an encounter with the business end of a torch. After a brine, then week-long bath in pickling liquid of vinegar, citrus, verjus and aromatics it finds peace in the oils of grapseeds and olives: an immensely satisfying balance of firm fish, acid & fat, and a resourceful alternative to the pickled anchovies from further away.
Sadly, and almost predictably, about 1/3 of the dildos in the dining room wouldn’t even prod or taste it. The pickled scallops, not surprisingly, fared a bit better.