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7.22.11

Appreciating Tuna

Tuna fishing is a pursuit for hardy anglers, both recreational and commercial. Once it’s in the kitchen, this favorite fish makes an easy, elegant meal with minimal effort.

Tuna is a big fish – both in size and in flavor. The less it’s cooked, the more flavor it has, says Louis Larsen, owner of the Net Result fish market in Vineyard Haven.

“It’s hard to catch one, but it’s my favorite kind of fishing,” says Robby Coad of Edgartown, a commercial fisherman and charter captain.

A seventy-three-inch tuna, the legal commercial length from the jaw to the notch in the tail, might weigh about two hundred pounds, and they show up as big red dots on his electronic fish finder, says Robby. Finding a fish’s location, however, doesn’t necessarily guarantee a catch.

Tuna have incredible vision, Robby explains, and they’re fast. “They can swim over fifty miles an hour, so it’s easy to lose them, especially when they’re on the line and scared. It’s hard to do and you don’t get them every time you go.” Bluefin and yellowfin are the most prevalent large tuna species in these waters. They tend to show up in late spring, in the deep cold waters off the coast of Provincetown and east of Nantucket, and stick around until fall, when they start fattening themselves before heading south to spawn.

When he takes paying customers out on his boat Tenacious, Robby likes to head out as early as he can persuade a party to go, even leaving as early as 3 a.m. to get to the fish at first light. “They bite first thing,” he says. His recreational charters to fish for tuna cost $1,500 for up to six people for the trip.

As a fisherman for the past forty years, Robby says the changes in tuna fishing he’s seen are dramatic. “We don’t see as many big ones as we used to,” he says, adding that it takes twenty-five years for a tuna to reach four to five hundred pounds.

Conservationists have expressed concern that overfishing and habitat degradation, including effects of the BP oil spill on bluefin spawning grounds in the Gulf of Mexico, have contributed to a decline in the bluefin tuna population. The Center for Biological Diversity has sought endangered species status and a ban on bluefin fishing, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees U.S. fisheries, this year elected not to implement. However, there are minimum size restrictions and limits on the number of fish that can be caught.

Robby says he will continue to follow the current size and catch restrictions, but carefully avoids the politics when asked for his opinion. “I’m a commercial fisherman,” he says with a laugh. “It’s not up to me to make the regulations; it’s up to me to catch the fish. It’s what I do.”

Robby, who once caught an 846-pound tuna (his record), might sell a high-fat-content tuna bound for the Japanese market for $6 to $30 a pound at auction, compared to $3 to $6 a pound for domestic consumption.

Louis Larsen says the tuna sold in his fish market come from nearby waters and as far away as South Africa or Vietnam. “They swim all over the world,” he explains, and a freshly caught fish can be bound for market within hours.

He prefers yellowfin tuna because of its deep, dark red color and because it’s more abundant than bluefin. He has carried bluefin, though he is considering not selling it, given the concern over stock depletion. He says it would almost be easier if there were an industry ban so market owners would not have to make individual decisions.

Aficionados debate the taste differences between bluefin and yellowfin tuna, with some describing bluefin as a stronger, “meatier” taste than yellowfin. Both can be served raw or cooked. Most fresh fish, says Louis, can be served raw; they just won’t have the famous “meaty” texture of fresh tuna. He prefers his cooked minimally, seared on the outside, rare on the inside, for a melt-in-your-mouth quality. Cooked longer, it dries out, loses the smooth texture, and tastes more like canned fish.

What I think makes the best-tasting tuna is to dredge the pieces in a dry spice mix or rub before pan-searing. The coating helps protect the fish from drying out too much, so it’s crisp outside but rare on the inside. I like a Cajun blend available in the bulk spice section of Cronig’s Market in Vineyard Haven. But you can use any fish spice rub, lemon-pepper mix, tandoori, jerk, or your own combination of such fish-friendly spices as paprika, thyme, oregano, garlic, onion power, salt, and pepper. Sesame seeds in the coating offer a nice little crunch and good flavor, especially for an Asian-inspired dish such as tuna, edamame, and watercress salad, served with an orange-ginger vinaigrette (recipe follows).

Since tuna is so moist – and you don’t want to buy fresh tuna that looks dry – the coating usually sticks to the fish without the need for a binder such as egg or oil. To pan-sear tuna, let the pan heat on medium-high while dredging. Use a heavy-bottomed pan such as cast-iron or an All-Clad skillet to prevent burning. When it’s hot, add a bit of oil, and for a typical tuna steak that’s one-and-a-half-inches thick, sear about two to four minutes on each side or until a crust forms; the tuna should be cooked about a quarter inch through on both sides. For this easy preparation, try pairing the tuna with a tomato or pineapple salsa, or a pesto, such as one with lemon, capers, and pistachios (recipe follows).

The following recipes by Catherine Walthers were originally published with this article:

Tuna with Lemon-Caper Pesto

Sesame Tuna, Edamame, and Watercress Salad with Orange-Ginger Vinaigrette

Pasta with Fresh Tuna and Tomatoes