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7.1.19

Outdoors: What Are You Smoking?

Probably bluefish or bonito.

Fishermen like to tell each other fishing stories. And while an angler may hold a listener’s interest in a tackle shop – fish protocol dictates that if you listen to my story, I will listen to yours – a summer cocktail party is not the best venue for a discourse on a bluefish blitz at Wasque Rip.

But that takes an awareness that I do not always possess at social events. Given a pause in polite conversation, I will joyfully switch topics and describe the details of my battle with a big bass at Lobsterville. My wife may be correct – she usually is – in her post mortems on the drive home when she says that no one was really interested in hearing me talk about catching fish.

And yet I have learned that there is considerable interest on the seasonal social circuit in eating fish. Bring along a package of freshly caught smoked bluefish or bonito and you will hold the attention of your partygoers who give not a fig about the details of how a fish was hooked and fought.

Sharing the Island’s natural bounty is rooted in Island tradition. Knowledgeable hosts and guests appreciate the time and effort associated with the harvest and preparation of clams, oysters, and fish pulled from Island waters.

I appreciate the smoking process. There is an element of alchemy involved in tinkering with the brine recipe, seasonings, and the choice of wood. Then there is the anticipation as I watch white smoke curl up from the vent.

Bluefish is my first choice, in part because it is often readily found in our waters and its oily nature lends itself to the smoking process. But nothing beats bonito. It’s just rare for me to catch one, let alone the several fish that justifies the prep time.

Smoking fish is as simple or as complicated an activity as you choose to make it. Basically, the fish sits in a brine for several hours and is left to air dry until it has a thin, tacky skin that will help the smoke adhere to the fish. Advice from obsessed individuals is easily found on social media.

Having said that, I know people that skip all the steps and just throw the fish in the smoker – the Paleo method inspired by people who manage to live without Google.

My first smoker was a Little Chief, essentially a tin box with four racks and a heating coil in its base. In a past conversation, seasonal Vineyard Haven resident Jerry Hawke, winner of an Ag Fair blue ribbon for his smoked bluefish, told me he owed his success to a Little Chief because it created a lot of smoke but not much heat, which is the secret to producing moist fish.

I upped my game when I purchased a Masterbuilt smoker. It’s the size of a small cabinet and has digital controls, which makes it quite versatile. After some trial and error I figured out that I needed eight average size bluefish to have enough well-trimmed and skinned fillets to fill it.

Of course, fishing is not always catching. But I have found that other fishermen are happy to retain fish they might otherwise throw back for a share of the bounty. Last August, a private captain handed me six fresh bonito for smoking he caught well beyond the range of my boat.

This summer I am dancing with the big boys. I have a new Traeger smoker/grill, well known in those parts of the country where cooking brisket the size of my wife’s Kia is a religion. I think an entire smoked fish would make quite a buffet centerpiece. It operates by feeding wood pellets into a heat box, creating all encompassing smoke and low heat. Basically, set it and forget it.

Irrespective of the equipment, smoking fish is a method of food preservation that dates back to campfires in caves. You can extend the shelf life by vacuum sealing it.

Bring smoked fish caught in Island waters to your next party and expect to answer the question nobody will ask you if you bring a bottle of wine: Did you make this?

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