Bluefish is an often misunderstood fish that many describe as “fishy” or “oily.”

“I think anybody who says they don’t like bluefish hasn’t had a nice piece of fresh bluefish,” says Janet Messineo of Vineyard Haven, a fishing guide and fisherwoman for the past thirty years. “It’s so flavorful and sweet.”

Therein lies the debate.

When it comes to cooking bluefish, you have to make sure what you’re getting is top quality. Bluefish needs to be fresh – that’s the message underscored throughout every interview with fishermen, chefs, and Islanders about cooking and eating bluefish. Fresh here means the day it’s caught, or the day after (unless it’s smoked).

“Bluefish doesn’t have a big shelf life. It doesn’t freeze well; it gets oily,” says Janet.

On the Vineyard in both spring and fall, getting fresh bluefish is typically not a problem. Bluefish are everywhere, and dozens are pulled out of waters here daily, especially during the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby each fall. But buying bluefish off-Island, that’s another story.

“Bluefish is not always treated with respect at the market,” says Boston chef Jasper White, author of The Summer Shack Cookbook: The Complete Guide to Shore Food (W.W. Norton, May 2007). “They don’t make a lot of money on bluefish, so they don’t treat it well. But you’re on the Vineyard, that’s like bluefishing paradise.

“The second you catch them, they should be bled right on the boat,” he says. “When people catch a fish, they should bleed, gut, and ice it right away. It’s going to be that much better.”

Even on the Island, fish-market owner Louis Larsen of the Net Result in Vineyard Haven says he’s careful about whom he buys his bluefish from, and often he pays a premium to those charter fishermen who properly handle bluefish.

Louis notes that the enzymes in bluefish cause the fish to deteriorate rapidly. He keeps bluefish in the market one to two days, but says it can last up to a week if handled properly when caught. He can usually tell if it’s been handled properly by checking the temperature of the fish when he gets it; the fish should be at forty degrees.

Vineyard fishermen and women who enjoy bluefish will bring a cooler filled with ice when fishing from a boat or along the shore. Many, like longtime fisherwoman Shirley Craig of Edgartown, fillet the fish right on the beach and carry them home on ice in a cooler. This keeps the flesh firm, rather than mushy.

“If it gets soft, it’s almost impossible to fillet,” says the widow of mystery writer Philip Craig, who collects bluefish recipes and co-authored the cookbook Delish! The J.W. Jackson Recipes (Vineyard Stories, 2006) with him.

Bluefish are as plentiful today along the East Coast of the Americas, from Maine to Argentina, as they were a hundred or two hundred years ago, says Islesboro, Maine, resident Sandy Oliver, who is a food historian and author of Saltwater Foodways (Mystic Seaport Museum; 1995). And they have enjoyed the same mixed reviews.

“People have been eating it for a long time. The problem with bluefish, like other oily fish like mackerel and pollock, is they are less well regarded.” And that’s probably why they are found in abundance today, she believes.

And as her research shows, bluefish has had both detractors and admirers over time. Sandy found a quote from Nantucket resident Maria Parloa singing its praises in 1894: “At Nantucket, grilled bluefish served three times a day would be hailed with pleasure.”

Historically, she says, “Bluefish, like cod, was also popular for chowder. When people went out for day sails, they took their pot and potatoes. They would catch bluefish, set up on shore, build a fire, and make their own chowder right on shore with fish right out of the water.”

Sandy says she’s made bluefish chowder herself and “it’s really good stuff” (there is a recipe for it in her book).

Bluefish also tastes great on the grill, baked in the oven, broiled, and smoked in a smoker – not many fish have the same versatility. On the grill, Jasper White suggests starting with a hot, hot grill. “Oil the grill, oil the fish, sear it, and flip it over. You can’t dry it out – it’s fatty.”

Bluefish has the same omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, he says. “Bluefish is very good for you. It’s one of the most healthful fish you can eat.

“It can be baked, Veracruz style, with tomatoes,” he says, “and broiled with garlic butter. Garlic and chilies work really well on bluefish.” He likes Asian flavors with bluefish, as well as serving it with toppings like olive tapenade, roasted red peppers, mustard, and horseradish.

Chef Chris Parsons, who opened Catch at the Terrace this summer at the Charlotte Inn in Edgartown, likes to balance bluefish with some bright acidity – either lemon or lime juice or vinegar. “I wouldn’t match bluefish with any creamy sauce; it would be too heavy,” he says. He suggests broiling bluefish and serving it with a salad and vinaigrette.

“If you don’t get extremely fresh fish that day, it gets oily and a fishy flavor. A great solution is to smoke it. It’s a great fish for smoking – it doesn’t dry out easily,” Chris explains. “High-fat-content fish are very pleasing to eat, and bluefish has a clean, crisp flavor.”

What they do with bluefish

Shirley Craig of Edgartown, co-author of Delish!
Bluefish with mustard-horseradish sauce: fish is topped with a mix of equal amounts of mayonnaise and mustard with a bit of prepared horseradish; baked.

John “Zeus” Faust of Vineyard Haven, musician and former chef
Crispy fried bluefish: bluefish dredged in flour, egg, milk, and cornmeal; fried in oil until crispy.

Johnny Hoy of West Tisbury, front man for the band Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish
Smoked bluefish paté: smoked fish, cream cheese, wasabi, garlic, and lots of lemon juice.

Janet Messineo of Vineyard Haven, shore-fishing guide
Bluefish cakes: leftover bluefish mixed with mashed potatoes, sautéed onion, red pepper, and parsley; pan-fried.

Chris Parsons, chef, Catch at the Terrace, Edgartown
Grilled bluefish (a family recipe): bluefish wrapped in foil with cayenne, thinly sliced onion, fennel, sliced lemon, lemon juice, and half a beer; packet is grilled.

Steven Raichlen of Chappaquiddick, author, TV cooking show host
Bluefish on a board with maple-mustard glaze (full recipe found in July 2007 edition of Martha’s Vineyard Magazine): bluefish topped with barbecue rub, maple mustard, and brown sugar; grilled on soaked cedar plank.

Jasper White, Boston chef and cookbook author
Broiled bluefish with garlic herb butter: fish is broiled then topped during the last few minutes with a mix of softened butter, parsley, chives, garlic, shallot, and cayenne.

Italian baked bluefish with tomatoes, garlic, and olives

This is a simple weeknight preparation that can be made in minutes and easily baked in the oven, but tastes good enough to serve for company.

Serves 2

• 1 bluefish fillet
• Salt and pepper
• 1 cup fresh tomatoes, chopped
• 1/4 cup green olives, chopped
• 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
• 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• 1 tablespoon fresh oregano

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Oil a glass baking dish and place fish skin side down. Season with salt and pepper.

2. In a bowl, mix together the tomatoes, olives, garlic, olive oil, and oregano. Season with salt and pour over fish.

3. Bake for 18 to 25 minutes, depending on the size of the fish, until flaky or easily pierced with a fork.

Bluefish with soy-ginger sauce

Recipe from The Summer Shack Cookbook: The Complete Guide to Shore Food by Jasper White (W.W. Norton, May 2007). Jasper likes this classic
dipping sauce with rich fish like bluefish, tuna, and mackerel. Serve the fish with rice and spoon a little of this sauce over the rice as well as the fish.

Serves 4
 
• 1 cup light soy sauce, such as Kikkoman
• 1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
• 1 large, thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
• 1 tablespoon Asian sesame oil
• 5 tablespoons sugar
• 5 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped
• 2 bluefish fillets

1. In a medium bowl, combine all the ingredients except fish and whisk well. (Refrigerate if not using within a couple of hours.)

2. Bake, broil, or grill bluefish until cooked through the center. Serve with soy-ginger sauce.

Bluefish with lemon-mustard crust

This is a simple combination of mustard and lemon for the bluefish, which starts out in the oven, but is finished under the broiler for some crispness. The idea came from a similar preparation used on halibut by Tina Miller in her book Vineyard Harvest: A Year of Good Food on Martha’s Vineyard (Broadway, 2005). This recipe uses thyme, but you can vary the herb by substituting fresh dill or tarragon.

Serves 2

• 1 bluefish fillet
• Salt and pepper
• 3 tablespoons butter, softened
• 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
• 1 teaspoon lemon zest
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
• 3 tablespoons panko (Japanese) bread crumbs (available at Cronig’s)

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Oil a glass baking dish and place fish skin side down. Season with salt and pepper.

2. In a small bowl, combine softened butter with thyme, lemon zest, lemon juice, mustard, and bread crumbs. Spread on top of the bluefish.

3. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of the fish. Turn on broiler and move fish up to within 6 inches of broiler. Broil for 2 to 3 minutes, or until fish is easily pierced with a fork and lightly browned on top.

Philip Craig’s favorite stuffed bluefish

Recipe from Delish! The J.W. Jackson Recipes by Philip and Shirley Prada Craig (Vineyard Stories, 2006). Mystery writer and cook Philip Craig passed away this year. We’ll remember him for his Martha’s Vineyard mystery series, of course, but also his love of the Vineyard, especially fishing, and eating from his garden. This is Phil’s favorite bluefish recipe, says his wife Shirley. They made this recipe each year with their first bluefish of the season. She often adds sautéed onion and celery to the stuffing mix, and sandwiches the stuffing between two bluefish fillets before baking in the oven. “A lot of people have tried this recipe and said they loved it,” says Shirley.

Serves 4 to 6

• 1 medium (6- to 8-pound) bluefish (cleaned whole fish or filleted)
• Herb stuffing mix, enough to fill fish cavity or sandwich between fillets
• Italian salad dressing
• Lemon wedges

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place fish in baking pan that has been lined with greased foil.

2. Mix stuffing according to package directions, or make your own. Fill cavity of fish with stuffing, or put stuffing between fillets. Drizzle salad dressing over fish.

3. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until fish flakes easily. Remove fish to heated platter and garnish with lemon wedges.

Grill-roasted bluefish with orange sauce

Citrus such as lemon or orange cuts through the richness of bluefish perfectly. In this preparation by private chef Rachel Vaughn of Martha’s Vineyard and Big Sky, Montana, bluefish is cooked directly on the grill. Oil grill well and rub with a raw potato to keep fish from sticking.

Serves 4

• 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
• 1 1/2 tablespoons shallots, minced
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 1/2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
• 1 chipotle pepper (dried jalapeño pepper)
• 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
• 1 tablespoon maple syrup
• 1 teaspoon honey
• 4 cups wood chips, soaked in water
• 2 bluefish fillets
• Salt and freshly ground pepper
• 1 orange, thinly sliced
• 1 lemon, thinly sliced
• Lemon juice
• Fennel fronds (tops of a fennel bulb)

1. In a small saucepan, sauté butter, shallots, and salt for a few minutes, until shallots are golden. Add orange juice, chipotle pepper, mustard, and maple syrup, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until thickened and reduced to about half a cup, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat, and add honey. Remove the chipotle, and strain the sauce.

2. While sauce is cooking, preheat the grill. Drain wood chips and wrap in two packages of tinfoil pricked with a fork in several spots. Oil the hot grill, and add wood-chip packages on top of grill grates and let them start to smoke.

3. Prepare fish skin side down by seasoning with salt and freshly ground pepper. Lay orange and lemon slices on top. When chips are smoking, place fish on grill. Cover and grill for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the size of the fish.

4. When fish is done, squeeze lemon juice over the top. Serve with fennel fronds, either as a base or chopped on top for garnish. Pass the orange sauce.