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Cookbook connects with the lore and allure of bluefish

Sunday, February 24, 2002

By Marlene Parrish

If you ever want to write a cookbook that is at once personal, irreverent and informative, your model might be "Laugh the Blues Away: A Bluefish Cookbook." It's as good a read as it is unusual -- a blend of recipes that work, anecdotes from pals and historical notes as needed.

(Illustration by Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette)

The author is no usual cookbook writer, though his bluefish recipes may be particularly welcome during Lent, when some families include more fish in their diet.

Edwin "Ted" Fenton is an academic, not a chef.

Now professor emeritus, Fenton joined the history department at Carnegie Mellon University (then Carnegie Tech) in 1954 and has been there ever since. He is the author of a number of social science books and was director of the University Teaching Center. Fenton was a founding member of the Academy for Lifelong Learning, a popular noncredit, peer-taught education program for adults in the Pittsburgh area.

But Fenton isn't all work and no play. He and his family spend five months every year on Cape Cod.

"We built our house in 1968, and I love to fish," he says. "Bluefish come in cycles, and during the '70s and '80s, they descended in hordes on Cape Cod Bay. Beginning sometime each June, bluefish became a staple of our diet, supplementing the flounder, mackerel, cod, black bass, trout and shellfish that we had been eating. Cooking and eating fish rationalizes my hobby -- catching them."

A case of the blues

As Fenton's collection of recipes grew out of his culinary experiments, he ran off copies for friends. Ten years ago, he started to put them together in book form, and his friend Susan Rotolo rendered whimsical drawings. But other things took precedence, and the cookbook project was put on a back burner.

That changed when Fenton wrote "Carnegie Mellon 1900-2000: A Centennial History," working with designer Libby Boyarski. They had such fun together that when the history was completed, they wanted to collaborate immediately on another project. Fenton suggested the one already in the works: a bluefish cookbook.

Fenton and Boyarski began working on the book in earnest, Rotolo was asked to supplement her drawings, and the project took off.

"Laugh the Blues Away" is laced with fish facts and "Irreverent Comments," the observations of some 30 neighbors, fishing companions and family. These comments tend to good-natured ribbing, verbal eye-rolling, outright disbelief and hilarious criticism.

"My family caught bad cases of 'Surfeit of Bluefish,'" Fenton says. "They formed cabals to plan bluefish-free days. They offered prizes for the most original and damning bluefish complaints. My training as a historian conditioned me to take notes on these complaints, and they are the source of the Irreverent Comments that appear throughout the book."

And the fish facts? "My fishing buddies and I have caught thousands of blues during the past three decades," Fenton says. "We share the tricks of the trade as we exchange bluefish yarns around our winter piscatorial hot-stove league. So I decided to weave helpful fishing hints here and there into the cookbook."

Fish stories

Bluefish are found in most of the world's warm oceans and in a few of its saltwater seas. Their local names change from country to country. According to Fenton, American nicknames for bluefish include tailors, slammers and choppers -- choppers, because the bluefish is said to resemble an animated chopping machine whose business it is to cut to pieces as many smaller fish as possible in a given space of time. They travel in schools and move like a pack of hungry wolves hell-bent on destroying everything before them.

"Blues have an eye on each side of their heads," Fenton says. "They can look in one direction with one eye and in another with the second. Their eyesight is so sharp that they can see a lure while it's still in the air and strike it as soon as it hits the surface of the water. If you and a couple of pals go out into a school of blues, all three fisherman can get simultaneous strikes. Both the upper and lower jaws are lined with needle-sharp, conical teeth. A bluefish took off the end of my finger. But then I got even. I ate him for supper."

Bluefish is meaty, and the flavor is assertive but delicious. A quick soak in a marinade of lemon or lime juice for a half hour or less will take the edge off any strong flavor. Bluefish, however, has a reputation for being oily and intense. That is a condition of lack of freshness more than a characteristic of the species, because the fish does not travel well and can go bad quickly. Rely on a good fishmonger.

Fenton prefers to eat the smaller fish, 4 pounds and under. When he prepares larger fish, he recommends that you cut out the dark flesh that runs the length of the fillet on the skin side. This flesh contributes to an oily taste. A V-shaped cut on each side of the dark flesh removes most of it.

When cooking fish, a good rule of thumb is to cook it for 10 minutes for every inch of thickness at the fillet's thickest part. Fenton's recipes cover the waterfront, literally, with suggestions for baking, grilling, smoking and broiling. There are appetizers, soups, main dishes and ideas for leftovers.

Fenton, a serious composter, tells another tall tale. "I dig three trenches," he says. "Into one I throw the fish frames from bluefish. In the second, I toss skeletons of bass and in the third, I throw flounder bones. I cover them, and, in the spring, I plant Buttercrunch lettuce. A sophisticated palate will be able to tell which lettuce is planted over which fish."

Then he winks.

Ted Fenton's "Laugh the Blues Away," a sunny yellow, soft-cover cookbook, was produced in partnership with designer Libby Boyarski, with line drawings by Susan Rotolo. It is available at Benkovitz Seafoods and Wholey's in the Strip, Crate Cookware in Scott and the CMU campus bookstore. It was published by Ring Road Press and sells for $9.95.

Marlene Parrish is a free-lance writer who writes about food for the Post-Gazette.

Baked Bluefish Fillets with Dijon Mustard

4 bluefish fillets, skinned
Juice of 1 lemon
Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the fish in a dish and squeeze the juice of the lemon over them. Let them marinate for 20 to 30 minutes. Place the fillets in an oiled baking pan and cover them generously with a coating of Dijon mustard. Bake for 10 minutes per inch of thickness of fish at its thickest part.

"Laugh the Blues Away"

Sauteed or Broiled Bluefish Fillets with Gin

People like the idea of cooking with gin as much as they dote on the taste, which is delicious; the combination of lime and gin cuts the strong flavor of the fish. To make bread crumbs, toss crumbs into a small saute pan along with 2 tablespoons olive oil or butter and stir over medium heat until they become tan; remove to a dish and reserve.

4 bluefish fillets, skinned
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1 lime
1/4 cup minced chives or scallions
2 ounces gin (optional)
1/4 cup buttered bread crumbs

Marinate the fish for 30 minutes in a mixture of half the butter, the juice of the lime and chives or scallions.

To saute: Pat the fillets dry (but reserve the marinade) and saute in the remaining butter, cooking about 4 minutes per side. When almost done, add the marinade and the gin, if using. Heat through, and allow the gin to catch fire. After the flame dies down, baste once or twice with the pan juices and cook until done.

To broil: For a 1-inch-thick piece of fish, broil for about 4 minutes per side, about 5 inches from the broiler. While the fish cooks, heat the gin with the remaining butter and pour the mixture over the partly cooked fish, then return the fish to the oven where the gin will catch fire. After the flame dies down, baste once or twice with the reserved marinade and cook until done.

Top with buttered bread crumbs. Makes 4 servings.

"Laugh the Blues Away"

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