Three or four summers ago I was standing in water up to my knees on a sandbar known as Horseshoe Shoal in the middle of Barnstable Harbor, that long shark-shaped body of water that swims between the shores of Sandy Neck to the north and the town of Barnstable to the south on Cape Cod. As I watched, a flock of seabirds raced down the channel that passes between the sandbar and Sandy Neck. The birds swooped and cried, strafing a line across the water with their beaks as precise as a squadron of P-51 Mustangs. Then I saw it, a deep slate discoloration below the channel surface, an undulating gray movement that fragmented into hundreds of individual fish as it flashed by me. I wasn’t the only one to take notice. Small boats stopped in the channel, people rising to stand, hands shading eyes. “Blues!” a man cried, waving and pointing. It was August and the bluefish were running. For anglers and eaters on Cape Cod, only striped bass equal the pleasures of bluefish. Stripers taste more delicate, but bluefish fight harder. This week’s dish: Bluefish with Dukkah, Tomatoes and Garlic Yogurt.
Bluefish, contrary to popular impression, is not a “fishy” fish–not like, say, mackeral or fresh sardines–but it is rich, and in combination with its meaty texture I can understand why some people think of it as fishy. The flavor of so much white fleshed fish is delicate to the point of neurasthenic ghostliness; in the absence of directed attention it fades away, or vanishes into the olfactory ether. Not bluefish. A mouthful of bluefish refuses to be ignored. Bluefish is enhanced by agrodolce, loves hot sauce, but is also just perfect with a few herbs, some oil, salt and pepper. In fact, bluefish responds a lot like beef–good with, good without, willing to stand on its own or play with others. Which is why we’ve combined it with another seasonal highlight, tomatoes. And dukkah. The recipe is two-step with the oven: first you roast the fish with the dukkah, then you brush a bit of oil over the partially cooked fish and add the tomatoes before returning everything to the oven to finish. The garlic yogurt provides a tart, spicy foil to the fish’s richness.
For the uninitiated, dukkah is an Egyptian toasted seed and nut mixture built around a core of coriander and sesame seeds. It makes an excellent coating for cooked meats or seafood, tastes great sprinkled on salads, or when added to steel-cut oats with leftover roasted vegetables and a poached egg for a killer breakfast. In its traditional context it’s consumed by dipping a piece of pita bread into olive oil, then into the dukkah. If you’re the kind of person who likes preserved lemons, you’re going to love dukkah* and you can find out how to make it in a previous post here. If you’re not that kind of person, or don’t have time to be that person, then I suggest that you prepare an equal amount of chopped toasted almonds mixed a half teaspoon of toasted and crushed fennel seeds in place of the dukkah. Don’t ask me if you can use sole in place of bluefish. You can’t. We’re talking about the running of the blues. Enjoy. Ken
*Make the dukkah. You can’t imagine how, like preserved lemons, it will carve a niche into your cooking and eating life so profound you’ll wonder how you lived without it.
Bluefish with Dukkah, Tomatoes and Garlic Yogurt
- 8 ounces Greek yogurt
- 1 small garlic clove
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pint small tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped cilantro leaves
- 1 tablespoon chiffonaded mint leaves (see photos–thinly sliced), save a few top sprigs for garnish
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil4 5-ounce pieces bluefish fillets
- <¼ cup dukkah, plus additional dukkah for garnish (or chopped toasted almonds with a 1/2 teaspoon of crushed toasted fennel seeds)
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- Preheat a broiler.
- Put the yogurt into a small bowl. Using a fine microplane, grate the garlic into the yogurt and then stir it in. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate, ideally for several hours or even the day before.
- Cut the tomatoes in half and toss in a bowl with the chopped herbs and a splash of oil. Season with salt and pepper.
- Score the skin side of each piece of bluefish with 3 slashes to make a shallow cut into the flesh. Season the fish with salt and pepper. Brush both sides with olive oil. Sprinkle dukkah over the flesh side of the fish and press into the fish. Flip the pieces and spoon a little dukkah into the slashes. Don’t leave a lot of stray dukkah sitting exposed on the skin–it can burn under the broiler.
- Set the fish, skin side up in an oiled gratin dish.
- Set the pan 6 inches below the flame of the broiler. Cook until the skin begins to crisp, about 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and distribute the tomatoes around the fish. Brush the skin with more oil if it seems dry. Return the dish to the oven and broil until the meat is cooked to medium and the tomatoes start to char, about 6 minutes.
- Drizzle with the balsamic vinegar, garnish with herb sprigs and serve the yogurt and remaining dukkah on the side.
When I first started serving bluefish at Rialto, I was told it would never sell. “It’s too oily, too fishy.” Bluefish was a last resort–you only ate it if you couldn’t afford anything else. In Massachusetts cod was king, thank you very much. Where cod is white, flaky and mild, bluefish is dark, rich, and meaty. Those same characteristics are what make bluefish so much more fun for chefs–it’s tasty. I was stubborn, I made my staff talk about bluefish with our customers, and order by order the requests for bluefish began to climb. Eventually a July rolled around when bluefish even out-sold steak.
If you’ve been following us for awhile you know that a day without dukkah just doesn’t feel right to me. Behind garlic and fresh green herbs, dukkah is the most frequent seasoning I use at home. I put it on everything. Bluefish welcomes the rich and complex flavor of dukkah. Puglians introduced me to the technique of using red and green tomatoes together in order to balance sweetness with acidity. Together, along with a bit of tart yogurt, they prevent the fish from becoming too rich.
In my first restaurant job we used an old fashioned monster broiling grill. An overhead flame heated the grill, which we would pull out on rollers (think of a morgue drawer). We’d set a steak on the grill, muscle the thing back beneath the flame and wait while it cooked. We’d have to keep pulling the grill out to turn the steaks—great for upper body strength. These days most restaurants use salamanders, industrial-strength broilers. In Italy and France it’s quite common to cook fish cooked under salamanders in restaurants but in recent years I’ve hardly seen it all in the states. I’m not sure why. Do we think it’s cheating because it’s so easy? I love using the broiler at home, particularly if you use the same pan for cooking and serving. There’s so much less to clean up.