The other day I got a notice on Facebook that Steve Connolly Seafoods in Gloucester had, among other delights, local bluefin tuna. It’s been a while since I’ve been down to Connolly’s wharf and far too long since I had bluefin tuna. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I ever cooked bluefin even though I’ve been around it most of my life.
My dad, before he was the Striper King was slammin’ 900-pound bluefins in the early 1980’s, back when the first Japanese buyers started showing up in Gloucester. The wharves I worked on briefly in the 90’s all bought tuna and in the summer and fall, the jitterbugs (forklifts) were busy bringing fat 600-pounders to the cooler. Nowadays, most of my friends have landed multiple big bluefins and our tuna season has been so good over the last few decades that every cable subscriber in America knows of Wicked Tuna.
About Gloucester Bluefin Tuna
Bluefin are the largest of the tunas, with Atlantic bluefin (Thunnus thynnus) getting well over 1,000lbs. Eastern Atlantic bluefin, which spawn in the Mediterranean tend to be a little smaller but mature quicker than the fish we get here on the US Atlantic coast. The bluefin tuna found in our markets, restaurants and a certain popular TV show are western Atlantic bluefin, which migrate seasonally from the Gulf of Mexico.
Bluefin tuna is another example of changing tastes, changing markets and how fishing ports like Gloucester adapt. The glory days of Gloucester’s schooner fleet didn’t bring in tuna, except as a curiosity. Once in a while a vessel would bring in an enormous “horse mackerel” where it would make headlines and then probably turned into cat food. Yankees didn’t eat tuna (or swordfish) until the “ethnics” like we Italians and Portuguese immigrants taught them to eat these large, powerful seasonal visitors. Swordfish caught on with the public quicker, it was not until the late 1930’s that even a small market for large tuna began to emerge locally.
Bluefin tuna can be a controversial topic since the Pacific bluefin tuna (Thunnus orientalis) is one of the several species that is overfished. The Japanese demand for the highest quality bluefin tuna is well-known, but less widely known is the domestic demand now that sushi has gone mainstream in the US. The vast majority of the locally caught bluefin tuna stays here for the domestic market, but like salmon, the world has gone tuna crazy.
Here in Gloucester the Large Pelagics Research Center has done great work in determining the health of the stock. Their tagging and monitoring programs have led to major discoveries about Atlantic bluefin migration and spawning patterns. When I was a kid there were still a lot of misconceptions about bluefin tuna but this kind of research, often working in conjunction with fishermen, has changed how the stocks are managed. And from what I can tell, they have done a great job.
There is no doubt that our local waters are a hotspot for bluefin tuna, and a major factor for this the abundance of food available: mackerel, squid, herring and right now menhaden (pogies). While I was writing this, I saw a video online of a boat catching a tuna by harpoon as they feasted on a pogie school…right off the rocks! I’ve never seen tuna that close to shore – only stories from my grandfather and great-grandfathers time.
Fortunately it seems that the branch that visits the US East coast every year is successfully managed. While nobody really knows the true health of the western Atlantic bluefin stock, there is both scientific and anecdotal evidence showing they are not overfished. Based on its last assessment (2017), NOAA states western Atlantic bluefin tuna is not overfished, nor is currently subjected to overfishing.
About My Bluefin Tuna Steaks
I got two Atlantic bluefin tuna steaks weighing a total of 1.6lbs at $17.95 per pound. The tuna brought into the Gloucester buyers are caught with rod-and-reel or harpoon and the occasional handline, making sure the meat is good quality. If you are used to yellowfin (ahi) tuna, you will notice that bluefin is much darker red in color. The steaks were lean, with very little visible fat and a good “tuna” smell that to me is somewhere between the sea and fresh cut beef. Bluefin in my opinion is the closest to land based meat.
My original thoughts on how to prepare the fish was to marinate it and then grill it with some Sicilian inspired ingredients. However it was so hot out even at dinner time that I opted for a pan-sear on the stove top, and my air conditioner.
Bluefin Tuna Recipe: Marinated Bluefin Tuna With Basil-Mint Pesto
- 2 Atlantic Bluefin Tuna Steaks
- 1/2-3/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 Orange – juice
- 1 sprig Fresh Rosemary
- 2 Garlic Cloves, crushed
- Salt and Pepper
- approx. 2 cups Basil Leaves (I used Genovese and lemon basil)
- 1 cup Mint Leaves
- 20-25 Pistachios
- Lemon – juice and zest
- 2tbsp Grated Peccorino
- All measurements are approximations!
For the Marinade: Combine 3 parts oil to 1 part orange juice, salt and pepper and shake or whisk to emulsify. Add crushed garlic and roughly chopped rosemary.
Season the tuna steaks and place in a resealable bag with the marinade and refrigerate for about 30-45 minutes. Take out a few minutes before cooking. Heat pan nice and hot and take tuna out of marinade (remove garlic and rosemary) and place in the pan. Sear anywhere between 3-6 minutes per side depending upon preference. 4 minutes per side should leave most of the interior rare.
For the Pesto: Place pistachios, basil, mint, lemon juice, zest and oil in a food processor. Blend until smooth, adding more oil as needed. Add the grated cheese then top the tuna steaks.
I found it interesting when researching marinades, how long some call to marinate the tuna. Even traditional recipes I found on Italian websites marinate their Tonno alla Siciliana for up to 3 hours. With marinades with acidic ingredients like orange juice that seems like a really long time. I decided to go with a half hour marinade time.
I prepared my wife’s first because she likes her tuna well done, even though I probably made it to medium-well with 6 minutes per side. I cooked mine slightly less for medium, with the center holding onto some red. Once done, a quick splash of lemon and then a generous dose of basil-mint pesto. Like with the recent swordfish, we had my wife’s delicious cucumber, mint and watermelon salad to go along. It is the perfect summer side for grilled or seared fish.
How Was the Bluefin Tuna?
The bluefin tuna came out very very good. The mint pesto was a nice complement to the light hints of the garlic and citrus from the marinade. Bluefin I’d say has a deeper, meatier flavor when cooked compared to ahi but close enough to be interchangeable. However bluefin will cook darker and more grayish, especially if you are like me and prefer it more cooked than raw.
It’s good to try new things and while it was delicious and local, bluefin tuna will probably be an occasional choice. But who knows? Maybe one of my friends will take me out and I can finally catch one of my own!