Fresh is best

Each fall, as schedules allow, a group of us guys gather in Montauk, NY for a couple of days of fishing and camaraderie.  And some excellent dining.

Even though the rendezvous was originally a tent camping trip and meals were prepared over the fire, on the grill or with the Coleman stove, the quality and sophistication of some of the meals has always been remarkable.  

The first year I went, we were treated to some fish in a puttanesca-style sauce. Another year, we decided to crush up some of the wasabi peas brought along as a snack and use them to crust a striper fillet.  And then there was the year I modified one of Emeril Lagasse’s recipes for potato crusted halibut wrapped in slices of prosciutto.

Challenging ourselves to prepare “dinner party” quality fare in a rustic setting was as much a part of the fun as the pre-dawn rides out to the fishing grounds on the charter boat or the lively conversation while imbibing pre-dinner Manhattans around the campfire. The move to more comfortable lodgings of a borrowed house and a real kitchen three years ago has neither raised nor lowered the quality of the food presented.

As with any cooking, it was the freshness of the ingredients that really made the meals spectacular.  You cannot best a properly cooked piece of fish that is just hours out of the water. Proof of this became readily apparent the first year I participated in this trip. 

While the primary quarry of our fishing trips is striped bass, there is an almost unavoidable side catch of bluefish.  I was surprised at how readily I enjoyed the bluefish caught and cooked the same day, where as a rule I would avoid that fish.

So it has become the standard that each dinner prepared on the trip features both striper and blue.  And each evening’s meal presents cook and diner alike with opportunities to expand on the repertoire of striped bass and bluefish preparation.

This year’s trip, my first since 2006 due to work conflicts, was no different.  As usual, there were at least as many ideas on how to serve the fish as there were fishermen at the table. The dinner menu after the first day’s fishing reflected the input of those present:

The first dish came from Chris Schlesinger’s book “Big Flavors of the Hot Sun” by way of fishing buddy Kevin O’Connor who couldn’t wait to get this dish on the table for our evaluation.  {Kevin’s notes — “Needless to say, the main ingredient is bluefish, caught that day, preferably by the cook!  Best if you use a sauté pan you can place in the oven. Experiment, and enjoy with a cold IPA…“}

  • Make a rub of 1 part cumin, 1 part smoked paprika, 1/2 part kosher salt, 1/2 part fresh ground black pepper.
  • Rub the bluefish fillets.
  • Sear both sides (briefly) and set aside.
  • Chop one large yellow onion and sauté in olive oil for 5-6 minutes until clear. Add minced garlic (2 or 3 cloves). Sauté for a few more minutes.
  • Coarsely chop up a tomato or two.  Add to the sauté pan. Add 3/4 or 1 cup of OJ, juice of two limes, 1 tbsp ground cinnamon, some fresh oregano if you have it (not much), a few chipotle peppers minced, and a handful of raisins. Organic golden raisins, if you have them.
  • Bring to simmer, place crusted fillets back in pan and finish in oven at 350 degrees – 10-12 minutes or until fish is just opaque.

Next, I prepared a pasta dish inspired by a lunch I had in Florence, Italy.  Bite sized pieces of nicely cooked tuna were tossed with spaghetti. For the Montauk version, I used a bluefish filet and improvised the rest:

  • Empty one can of anchovy fillets and their oil into a large skillet along with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil
  • Place pan over low heat and stir occasionally until the anchovies start to dissolve into the oil.
  • Add four finely chopped garlic cloves, some black pepper and a pinch of red pepper flakes (optional).
  • In the meantime, have your water for cooking the spaghetti started and at a boil. Add pasta to water and cook until al dente.  (NOTE: I used a multi-grain variety for a more hearty flavor and texture)
  • Cut bluefish fillet into roughly one inch cubes and add the bluefish to the skillet
  • Stir occasionally to prevent sticking and cook until fish is just cooked through.
  • Drain pasta (you can add a couple of spoonfuls of the pasta water to the skillet if you like) and place in serving bowl.  Pour contents of skillet over the pasta, toss and serve.

The last item on the menu was the simplest.

We took a large striped bass fillet and prepared it for grilling: salt, pepper, a splash of white wine.  Unfortunately, the grill ran out of propane just as we were ready to put the fish on to cook.  So we quickly fired up the oven and baked the fish at 325 degrees until it was just done. In the meantime, in a small pan on the stove top I melted 3 ounces of white truffle butter.*  The fillet was removed from the oven and placed it on a serving platter, then drizzled with the melted white truffle butter.

While we had the relative luxury of indoor accommodations and a working kitchen, any of the dishes we prepared this trip could easily have been accomplished in our make shift camp kitchens of previous years.   

Inside or outside, it doesn’t really matter as long as the fish is fresh.

*D’Artagnan produces both white and black truffle butters that can be found in many higher end grocery stores or specialty food shops.  Or you can do as I did and soften a stick of sweet butter and blend in a few drops of white truffle oil to taste. Place the flavored butter on a piece of plastic wrap, roll it into a small log shape, seal tightly and refrigerate until ready to use.


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5 Responses to “Fresh is best”

  1. wine blog Says:

    Fresh is no doubt best in almost every aspect of dining, and especially with fish. All the food sounds amazingly delicious! Cheers~

  2. Jim Carlucci Says:

    So true. I would even suggest that many food “dislikes” that we develop stem from being served less than fresh and/or improperly prepared examples.

  3. Bill Reitsma Says:

    Makes my mouth water

  4. The power (and taste) of suggestion « Dj'eat? Says:

    […] year I reported on our yearly fish-fueled cooking frenzy and two of the dishes we prepared.  During one of the many food conversations we had on that […]

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