Serve It Up

by Scott Sadil

My old friend Peter Syka likes to tell the story about the first time he went fishing out of San Diego for albacore, a regular outing in the Southland angler’s season before changes in climate and God knows what else pushed these favorite tuna north and they became, for now at least, little but legend or tall tales from the past—unless you happen to be leaving the dock in Oregon, Washington, or beyond.

The way Peter tells it, even before fish were landed he asked someone who looked like he should know how folks prepared their albacore for eating.  The answer was unequivocal.

“You cook the shit out of it and then mix with mayonnaise and serve it between two slices of bread.”

We’ve come a long way, baby.

Still, in the modern era, I, like many others, don’t eat nearly as much of the fish I catch as I used to.  Catch-and-release trouting is more or less the norm; I bonk a hatchery-born steelhead now and then, but wild steelhead, illegal to kill almost everywhere, are generally the goal.

On a ten-day float last year in Alaska, on the other hand, Peter, Joe Kelly, and I, practically lived off fresh coho or silver salmon, each of us scarfing down three or four pounds of grilled fillets, every day, once we got into them. 

In Baja, of course, I do kill and eat fish, although the truth is I’m often on a small boat, or camped on a remote beach, unwilling to keep more than I can eat the day I kill and clean my catch.  That means I don’t keep big fish unless I know I’m headed that day, or maybe the next, back to somewhere I can get the meat on ice.

An inveterate dirt-bagger, trying to keep ice around has always seemed to me more trouble than it’s worth.  I did have a small Yeti this season, but mostly to strap on top of my SUP as a seat for changing flies, or while bucking a tough head wind.

But this year in López Mateos, my jumping-off point for exploring Mag Bay, I ran into Captain Juan Cook, from San Quintín, who fishes with folks who are usually eager to load their coolers with fresh meat.  Juan had asked me to bring him some fly-tying materials, flashy red stuff for a double-hooked weighted jig he was creating to imitate the pelagic crabs that are often around in the blue water where the wahoo and yellowfin tuna are found.  In exchange for the tying materials, or simply because Juan is a gentleman—one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet in Baja or anywhere else—he offered me a stack of frozen, vacuum-packed fillets the morning I pointed my truck and boat north and headed back for the border.

The frozen fillets were labeled, not more than two or three weeks old; I buried them in the Yeti beneath two bags of ice I had frozen into solid blocks, for just this purpose, the night before.  There’s a reason, of course, why Yeti has made such a splash in the cooler market in recent years.  Leave the thing closed, in the back of a truck during a spell of cool November weather, and the freight was safe as sonnets in a troubadour’s head.

Unlike more conservative friends, I refuse to let fish wallow in the freezer at home.  A couple of pounds a night is about right—seared, baked, whatever.  Finally, however, I decided to bring out my favorite salmon cookbook, Salmon, by Diane Morgan, a book I’ve mentioned here before, and one I’ve used for years for cooking all kinds of fish, not just our most illustrious Pacific Northwest fare.

Here’s one you might like: “Pan-Grilled Salmon on Braised Leeks with Parmigiano-Reggiano.”

Substitute ahi (yellowfin tuna) or ono (wahoo) for the salmon and you’re going to be really happy you tried this.

     4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

     6 leeks, white and light green parts only, halved lengthwise, rinsed, and cut into ½-inch slices

     2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

     kosher or sea salt

     freshly gound pepper

     4 fillets (about 8 ounces each)

     2 tablespoons olive oil

     ¾ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Nothing to it: Sauté the leeks 8-10 minutes in butter, add the broth, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and allow to simmer for 45 minutes to an hour. The leeks should end up very moist but not soupy.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Cover and keep warm while you heat oil in a big cast-iron skillet.  (I don’t have the “grill pan” Morgan recommends. So what?) With the oil good and hot, cook the fillets, three or four minutes a side, depending on thickness.  

To serve, scoop a portion of the braised leeks into a shallow pasta bowl.  Top with a piece of fish and cover with a generous amount of cheese—the snowstorm effect, I like to call it.  Serve immediately.

Morgan suggests serving with a pinot grigio.  But my sweetheart is a red-wine afiçionada, regardless of the fare—and I’m just smart enough to know that’s reason enough, like swapping wahoo for salmon, to serve with a full-bodied Puglia.

Gray’s angling editor, Scott Sadil, follows recipes about as closely as he copies fly patterns—not always to favorable effect.