June 4,  2008

Island Cooking: There’s nothing better than bluefish when it’s freshly caught   


During his long, interesting lifetime on the water my late father-in-law probably caught at least one of every fish that swims in our part of the ocean and in the Pamlico Sound.  

There was nothing Capt. Ernal Foster loved more than fishing for blues.  Well, that’s not quite true.  Even more than catching them, he loved to eat the bluefish he had just caught.

Capt. Ernal’s last trip out on his beloved Albatross was to fish for blues in Hatteras Inlet.  As they left the dock, he instructed his friend and fishing partner, my brother Gregg, “If I die out there, don’t call the Coast Guard – too much paperwork.  Just call 911, but tell them there is no emergency.”

He was a very happy man when they got to the inlet and found it churning with bluefish, just as he expected.  The fish gave him a whopping good fight and he was visibly excited watching them jumping every which way he turned.  He made it home that day, taking just enough fish in the box for lunch.   Capt. Ernal never got the chance to fish again but, oh, what a glorious finale!

I imagine that everyone who has ever fished on Hatteras and Ocracoke has caught bluefish.   They are caught in the surf and from boats and piers, with rod and reel and in nets, in the ocean and in the sound and, of course, in the inlets.  Recreational fishermen flock here when the blues are running, and our fish houses regularly ship thousands and thousands of pounds to the northern markets.

The fast-growing bluefish, Pomatomus saltatrix, is a voracious and enthusiastic feeder, gorging on squid, fatbacks (menhaden), croaker, and mackerel, among other fish.  To witness one of their feeding frenzies is to be privy to one of nature’s great displays of power and greed.  In this state, they will attack anything that moves, and this has included unfortunate fishermen!

They are themselves preyed upon by tunas and billfish and by sharks, the only creatures large and fast enough to catch them.

Although he had access to the Gulf Stream species that are now in favor, Capt. Ernal, like many island natives, never liked to eat them.  Bluefish was, and still is, a local favorite.  Many like to cook it “in the round” (whole, not filleted), so they can enjoy the sweet meat next to the bones.

Because of its high oil content and powerful digestive enzymes, it does not travel or freeze well.  Since many people do not have the opportunity to eat freshly-caught bluefish, they don’t like it and consider it “fishy.”  One taste of really fresh, well cared for fish and they are converted.  

Fishermen bail salty soundwater into pots on their boats, bring it to a boil, toss in some pepper and potatoes and chunks of straight-out-of the-sound blues.  Few of us have the luxury of that much freshness, but one place the rest of us can savor bluefish is weekly fish fry in Hatteras village.  

Every Saturday from Memorial Day through Labor Day, a loyal band of men and women from the village hold a fish fry at the Fire Station to raise money for the volunteer fire department and other village non-profit organizations.

They insist on cooking only fresh fish, caught by local watermen, and it is usually bluefish and sometimes Spanish mackerel, which you can substitute in any of the following recipes. Both species are here now, so I suggest you try them.

A group of dedicated volunteers begins working in the morning to prepare everything from scratch, including slicing cabbage for the cole slaw, mixing volumes of homemade potato salad, and making big tubs of iced tea.  

Those who are unable to help on Saturdays donate the ingredients and materials or make desserts at home.  It is a genuine community effort and all of the proceeds go directly where they are needed.

Later, in the steamy heat of the southern summer, other hardy souls come to serve the food from long tables in the fire station, and still others stand over huge vats of blistering hot oil as they fry breaded fish fillets and hush puppies.

The line forms early before serving begins at 5 p.m., but while it can be long, it is really friendly.  Locals take the night off from cooking, and visitors get to enjoy a little bit of island life as they feast on one of our best traditional summer suppers.   Regular patrons and first-timers sit together along picnic tables near the cook shack behind the fire station and everyone “catches up.”   (Take-out is available.)

Island seafood markets usually have bluefish fillets, cleaned and trimmed, from now through summer and fall. Some also carry whole fish.   If you catch it yourself, waste no time icing it, cutting it into fillets, and removing the bloodline.  Get it into the pan as quickly as you can.  The sooner it is cleaned and cooked, the lighter and more delicious its flavor.

It is a versatile food fish and makes a good choice, not only for its flavor, but also for the ease and swiftness of its preparation.
The first recipe for fried bluefish is adapted from one for fried flounder in  
“Risky’s Favorites: Delicious Seafood Recipes,” and it lives up to its name. It can be used for any fish.

This wonderful little cookbook by Beth Bailey, a celebrated island cook, is full of tips, clear instructions for seafood preparation, and flavorful marinades and sauces.  It is available at Risky Business Seafood Markets in Avon and Hatteras that she owns with her husband, Steve, who is also a crabber.  

When you purchase your seafood, be sure to buy the book.  You can use it during your vacation and it is an ideal (and useful) souvenir.  Pick up a few more for hostess gifts and “thank you” gifts for the dogsitter and the friend who is picking up your mail.  

You will be helping the non-profit Hatteras Island Cancer Foundation as you indulge yourself.  If you live here, you should get it too.  You will enjoy her variations and the enthusiasm with which it is written.

Here’s another tip: While you are there, pick up a squeaky crab toy or two.  All of the dock dogs love them.


Use the whole fillet if small or cut into strips if using large fish.
Shake gently in zip lock bag with House Autry Seafood Breader or Sweet Betsy and salt and pepper.
Cook in hot oil (peanut or canola) until golden and crispy.
Sprinkle on chopped fresh Italian parsley and serve with lemon wedges or tartar sauce.

The widely used House Autry Seafood Breader is available in local seafood markets and in grocery stores near the flour.  


3/4 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon minced onion
1/2 cup chopped dill pickle
1 tablespoon dill pickle juice
2 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon vinegar
A light sprinkle of fresh dill
1/4 cup chopped parsley

Mix and chill.  Then serve.  As Mrs. Risky says, “Pretty Goooooooood!”

Or you can make a more sophisticated version of that childhood staple, fish sticks.  These are good enough to serve to guests. Won’t they be surprised to be presented with a platter of fish sticks?


1 1/2 pounds fish fillets
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 eggs
1 cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup Peanut or Canola oil
Lemon wedges for serving

Turn oven on to 200 degrees.

Cut fish fillets into sticks measuring about 1 by 5 inches. Pour flour into shallow pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper and stir with fork until well blended.
Crack the eggs into another shallow pan and beat with fork until they are smooth and uniformly yellow.
Pour the sesame seeds into a third shallow pan.
Drag a fish stick through the flour, turning it to coat all over.
Gently shake off excess flour and dip quickly into the eggs, letting the excess drip off.
Finally drag the fish stick through the sesame seeds.  Again turn it to coat all sides.
Place on a clean plate and repeat the process until all fish sticks are coated.

Set a sauté pan over medium heat.  Pour the oil into the sauté pan and let the oil heat for 1 minute.  Using tongues or a metal spatula, put the fish sticks into the pan, one by one.  They should sizzle when they touch the oil.

Put as many fish sticks into the pan as you can without crowding them.  There should be a little space between each stick.  Cook until golden brown on one side, about 5 minutes.

Using the tongs or metal spatula, carefully turn the fish sticks and cook until the other side is golden, about 5 minutes more.

Place the cooked fish on a paper towel covered plate to drain and proceed with cooking the others.  Place the first batch in a baking dish in the oven to keep them warm while you cook the rest.

Since you are “breading” the fish sticks with sesame seeds you may want to add an Asian touch of flavor in a dipping sauce.


2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
1/2 cup Soy Sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon hot chili oil
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh ginger
1/2  cup chopped cilantro leaves

Combine ingredients and whisk together until smooth.  Garnish with the cilantro leaves.

Another good use of Asian seasonings is Mark Bittman’s grilled whole bluefish.  He claims in his wonderful book, “Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking,” that “Everyone I know likes this dish – even those who claim to hate bluefish.  Make sure that the skin is well scaled, because you’ll probably want to eat every bit of it.”  


One 4 – 6 pound bluefish, cleaned and scaled, preferably with head on
1 cup high-quality soy sauce
1/2 cup dry red wine
Dash red wine or balsamic vinegar (my preference)
One 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons ground cumin
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

Cut shallow (1/4 inch) gashes, running from top to bottom, every inch or two along the length of the fish; place in a large baking dish.  Mix together all the other ingredients and pour over the fish.

Marinate the fish in the fridge, for at least 1 hour, or as many as 24.

Brush both sides of the fish with olive oil or use a large fish basket if you have one.  Grill the fish slowly about 6 inches away from the heat, sliding a spatula under the fish from time to time to keep it from sticking.

Turn the fish only once, after about 10 minutes, using two spatulas to keep it intact.  Grill the other side until done.  Use a thin-bladed knife to peek into the thickest part of the fish, and make sure the meat near the bone is opaque.

Remove the fish from the grill and serve by scooping the fish off the central bones along the gashed made previously.  Whoever loses the fight over who gets to pick the meat from the bones, can have the cheeks!  The cumin reminds me of Indian food, so serve it with fragrant basmati rice.

My neighbor, Big Bill Foster (to distinguish him from Bill and Tall Bill), has for years been one of my best sources for seafood cooking ideas.  He has spent much of his adult life fishing and cooking and likes to experiment.  We are the fortunate benefactors of much of his “research.”

The fish fry cooks are all male, not unusual here when it comes to the preparation     of seafood.  Big Bill is one of the regular cooks, and he assures me that, “We practice frequent quality control.  We can’t serve broken pieces, can we?”   He makes the most delicious fish cakes with those pieces that aren’t taste-tested.  You can do the same at home with your leftovers.

A Southern fish fry or barbecue isn’t complete without hush puppies and they are essential to the fish fry leftover fish cakes.


Leftover fried fish with its breading
Leftover cooked hush puppies
Fresh egg
Canola or peanut oil for pan frying

Break up the breaded and fried fillets and the hushpuppies and mix together with the egg for binder. (If you have a large amount of leftover fish, you may need more than one egg.) Form into patties and fry in hot oil in a frying pan until golden and crispy.


House Autry Hush Puppy Mix is so good that you don’t need to start from scratch.  You can always make it your own with the addition of herbs, grated onion, minced green onion, garlic, hot pepper flakes, or sugar.  While I do not have a sweet tooth, I do like sweet hushpuppies, so try them sometime!

Peanut oil stands up to high heat better than other cooking oils, so I always use it for frying as long as none of the diners has a peanut allergy.  Otherwise, use canola oil so it doesn’t add flavor.

Try baking bluefish.  Irene Nolan, the editor of this newspaper, is a very busy woman, so she has become quite adept at quick and easy cooking, but she doesn’t sacrifice flavor.  C. A. Boxley, her late husband, was an avid outdoorsman and taught Irene how to fish, how to clean the catch, and how to cook all sorts of seafood.  This is a classical combination of flavors here on the islands, and it especially suits fresh bluefish.  

(You can broil it too)  

Lightly spray the bottom of a baking dish. Place fillets in the dish.
Generously squeeze fresh lemon juice on each fillet. Top with raw onion, sliced and separated into rings, and a slice of bacon to your taste, the larger the slice, the more bacon flavor.

Bake at 350º until flaky. Or place under the broiler.

I was invited to this year’s Brigand’s Bay Block Party in Frisco.  I think my dog, Chobe, was really the desired guest.  His friend, Daisy, wanted him to come, and I was his driver and escort.  But I got to eat from the big table and he didn’t!  (Although he made a valiant, if thwarted, attempt!)

Anita Bills is a big-hearted hostess, and there was food aplenty.  One of the joys of community gatherings is the array of dishes set out.  When people gather for covered dish suppers, cooks take great pride in bringing their personal favorite to share and, dare I suggest, show off a little?  

I picked up a new idea for cole slaw that I, too, would like to share.  It pairs wonderfully with bluefish and, being prepared in advance, allows the cook to focus on cooking the fish.


1/2 head cabbage, diced or sliced fine in a food processor if you have one or 2 bags  of angel sliced slaw
1 cup mayo
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Crumbled blue cheese to taste (6-8 ounces or less)

Don’t overdo the pepper flakes.  It is better to start with less, taste and add more.
Mix well and let sit overnight in the fridge so flavors will blend.

Many of us grow, or attempt to grow, tomatoes. It is hard to find a food that better says “summer” than sun-warmed sliced tomatoes with chopped fresh marjoram or basil, some salt and pepper and a splash of good extra virgin olive oil.  Unless you subscribe to the island habit of dusting tomato slices with sugar.  Both ways are ideal accompaniments to seafood.  The acid in tomatoes is particularly good with bluefish.

Since we are in the warm season and this food has the feel of a picnic supper and as citrus is always complementary to seafood, Anita’s refreshing lemon drops would be a most welcome addition.  Caution:  This drink is so tasty and cooling that you will have to go easy!  No driving allowed.


1 cup Citron Vodka
1 cup water/1 Cup sugar heated to make Simple Syrup
4 ounces Triple Sec or Cointreau
2/3 to 1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

It’s your choice to stir or shake. Mix and freeze if you have time.
Rim glass with lemon and sugar and, Anita recommends: “Enjoy an adult water ice … soooo good!”

(Lynne Foster lives in Hatteras village with her husband, Ernie. Together they operate The Albatross Fleet of charter boats. They actively support the sustainable practices of the island’s commercial fishermen and the preservation of Hatteras Island’s working waterfront.  Both love to cook seafood and entertain friends, and Lynne loves to experiment with recipes for locally caught seafood.)

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