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Merit McCrea – WHEELHOUSE SCOOP

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Tuesday, November 07, 2017
What does winning look like?


Piscis non grata
As an angler, there comes a time when some, shall we say, less than desirable fish, appear on the nether end of one’s line. It might be too unusual, too ultra-common, reputed to be strong tasting or “oily,” odd looking or whatever. There never seems to be a shortage of folks to tell you a fish that no one seems to have ever tried is no good. Sometimes there is even flavor lore. The lowly kelp fish is reputedly full of and tastes like iodine.

Well, I’m here to tell you, I was always a skeptic of such off-the-cuff commentary on fish no one had actually tried. So I tried most all the weirdos to a point. Then I met Izorline’s Wendy Tochihara, and she willingly went a step beyond even what I would try, even frying up a lizard fish.


In addition to weird fish and fish of unfounded lore, there are species which tend to be boom and bust, which often suffer low culinary appeal as a result. These are fish like Pacific mackerel and bonito and barracuda. Folks are okay with them, but would gladly have a single barely-keeper seabass rather than a limit of log barracuda. A keeper calico gets more cred than a 10-pound tiger tuna.


Then there is small stuff, things that come with, or are bait. I’ll start with those here, because that’s where I started. The first of the fish bait is the squid, and I have a good friend who thinks it’s a waste to use them as bait for seabass. Squid, it turns out, are much more tasty. Basically all one has to do is clean them and fry them in butter and garlic. The resulting little cylinders of goodness are awesome, but cleaning them can be tedious work.


They are much easier to clean after they’ve lost their live luster, have been soaked in iced sea water until they are hard and white, rather than busily trying to get the first bite. I slit the tube lengthwise, pinch the “wings” and use them as a handle to pull the skin off, scrape the insides out, and cut their nasty little face off, saving the tentacles and tossing the skin, eyes, wings and guts.


Yet, I’ve tried various methods of shortcutting all this cleaning, including throwing the bad attitude buggers live onto the grill. It turns out the eggs are great, but the eyes never harden up, no good.


Butter fish/pompano sometimes show up in the bait. These are pretty darned good, awesome in fact. Head-and-gut and fry. Sardines are okay but pretty potent. The Japanese way is to scale and clean the big ones, salt them and grill them. To me, the first 2 or 3 are pretty tasty. After that it gets to be too much, pretty rich fare.


We dealt with anchovies the South Pacific way, and my good friend Steve Kaylor gets the credit for bringing this one back.


We spread out dry newspaper, and flipped a dipper of pin-heads onto it. After a few seconds of flipping around, they were scale-less. Then these were head-and-gutted and doused in soy sauce. We put them on a clean surface on top of the galley roof to dry on sunny days when we were fishing tuna out past the coastal gull zone. The little ’choves made great jerky.


Then there’s the small stuff and weirdos everyone seems to think can’t be eaten. Kelp fish don’t taste like iodine at all. They eat a little better than bass, more like rockfish. Sand­dabs are awesome of course. It’s an easy head, gut, scale and fry for these, then you eat them just like pan-fried trout.


Lizard fish turned out to be really tasty, with a mild flavor like freshwater smelt. They are not especially oily. That lore turned out to be a lie. But they are boney, just like a trout, another equally primitive-style fish. We head, gutted and fried them, too.


Blacksmith is better than bass also, as are blue perch. We finally tried the Catalina blue whizzers for the first time this past week. Those I scaled, head and gutted. Then W.T. scored them Asian-market style, and salted them. Instead of filling deep fat fry, she put a thin layer of oil in the bottom of an air fryer, and fried them until their fins were crispy, just like at the market.


They were awesome, as was a similarly prepared tiny sheephead she also caught on a shrimp-baited Sabiki. The mini-goat did indeed have a shellfish flavor. At least that flavor lore turned out to be true. Opal-eye are another W.T. favorite this way.


Then there are the bigger fish few give a fair shake. Barracuda fillets turn out to look and taste just like white seabass, but you have to keep them in top condition, or they lose that goodness rather quickly. A few hours in a gunny under the hot 1/2-day sun and they’re fit only for making fish cakes or the smoker.


Bonito are similar regarding the need for bleeding and icing. They make great sashimi and poke. In addition, they “can” beautifully, and make great “tunafish” salad for sandwiches. An alternative prep for tuna salad is to slab them, place slabs skin down on a plate, sprinkle with a little salt and microwave. When done, press down on the fillet with a spatula, and the white meat will separate from the dark, leaving the skin, and bones stuck to the plate. Toss that dark and boney stuff. Greenback mackerel work this way too, but are stronger, not as nice.


Jack mackerel/Spanish mackerel are actually the same fish, and are almost as oily as albacore. But they are also awesome eating with a very mild, nutty flavor, unlike greenbacks/Pacific macs. Served raw like finely-chopped poke, or as thinly sliced sashimi, with hot peanut oil, green onion and cilantro is how Japanese prepare them. Grilled, they are great.


Finally, I had heard skipjack was the preferred fish for poke in The Islands, but had never tried it. In addition, skipjack comprise 60 percent of the canned tuna on the market. If it doesn’t say light meat or white meat tuna on the can, it’s “Charlie tuna.” Honestly, few can tell Charlie from yellowfin, in a sandwich.


As poke, skipjack was indeed awesome, best ever, dark with a nice firm texture. The only downside, once again, was one has to take care of it from start to finish as top-grade sashimi tuna, no slime, kept straight and chilled from deck to table, but served near room temperature. Skippies are no good on the grill. They need to be canned or raw.


* * *


Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California party boat captain, he also works as a marine research scientist with the Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at: merit@wonews.com.


tastyboneheads
TASTY BONEHEADS

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