When you see a price like $5.99 per pound for albacore, our West Coast version of filet mignon, it's hard not to start drooling. But then you realize that's for a whole fish, which average 12 to 14 pounds. It's not only a little intimidating to think about what in the heck you'd do with that much fish flesh, but it can also be a drain on your bank account.
But here's the thing: When you consider that albacore normally sells for twelve bucks and up per pound, buying the whole fish makes a lot of sense from the perspective of your wallet. The store will filet the fish for you, removing the loins (four per fish) from the skeleton. To get even more value from your fish, ask the butcher to package the bones and scraps separately, which may have as much as a couple pounds of flesh still clinging to it.
When you get the fish home, you have several choices: you can fire up the grill or the oven and roast one of those loins for dinner. The other three loins can go in the freezer for another day—they'll be good for several months if they're well-wrapped to eliminate any air getting to the fish. You can also confit one of the loins (recipe below), a quick process that will make any canned fish you've had pale by comparison. Or if you have a smoker, I can personally testify as to the deliciousness of smoked albacore, which also happens to keep quite nicely in the freezer.
Roasting the carcass.
That skeleton can be tossed in a big pot of water and simmered for an hour or so, giving you quarts of amazing fish stock (again, keeps for months in the freezer). Or you can put the carcass in a roasting pan at 400° for a half hour or so till the meat is cooked through, then cool it slightly until you can pull the meat off the bones. This results in a surprising amount of fantastic tuna that you can use in salads, sandwiches, a tuna "schmear" or dip—go crazy, there'll be lots!
Albacore, grain and vegetable salad.
To gild the lily, not that it needs it, West Coast albacore, because the fish are young when they're caught and haven't lived in the ocean that long, are extremely low in mercury and are perfectly safe to eat for young and old alike. They're high in omega-3 fatty acids, complete proteins, selenium and vitamin B-12, all shown to be beneficial for health. Not to mention that the fishery off our coast has gone through a rigorous certification process and has been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
Also know that almost all the boats in our coastal fleets are owned by individual families, so the more albacore you buy (and enjoy) the healthier and more sustainable our coastal fishing communities will be. So the next time you see that there's a big sale on whole fish, buy one for your family or to share among a group of friends. You won't be sorry!
Albacore Tuna Confit
1 skinless tuna loin
2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. red chili flakes
1 tsp. dried thyme
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed in a garlic press
Zest of 1/2 lemon
3-4 c. decent quality olive oil
Cut trimmed loin in four pieces. In a shallow pan, mix salt, chili flakes, thyme, garlic and lemon zest. Roll tuna pieces in the spice mixture, making sure to cover all surfaces (this doesn't have to be thick, it's just a rub). Place in dish on counter for at least a couple of hours or covered in the fridge if you're marinating it longer.
Place fish pieces in a saucepan and cover with oil. Put over very low heat and, using an instant-read thermometer, very slowly raise the temperature to between 140-150° (fast heating will cause the surface to seize and it will turn out dry rather than moist and tender). Maintain temperature for three to ten minutes, or until the center of the thickest piece is almost cooked through. (You can use a fork or knife for this purpose.) Turn off heat and allow the oil to cool. Remove fish from oil. Strain remaining oil through a fine mesh sieve.
If you're not using all the fish right away, place it in a container that has a tight-fitting lid. Cover the fish with the strained oil and seal. It will keep in the fridge in its oil for a couple of weeks. Any remaining oil can be used for dressings or other purposes—it has a fantastic flavor!
For more information on Oregon albacore, read Oregon Albacore A to Z.