The first time I snatched a bit of albacore off the grill, its crispy edges melted in my mouth. This is good stuff, I thought with surprise.
I grew up on canned tuna. Eating albacore fresh — a mainstay, albeit more spendy, of the canned market — was inconceivable.
Every summer, juvenile albacore aged three to five years old migrate from the waters off Japan to the North Pacific, following a warm current to an area off the continental shelf that is a dense feeding ground filled with baby fish and squid. The albacore come here to eat and put on weight.
When caught, the young tuna are fattier than their mature counterparts, and higher in omega-3 fatty acids than any other tuna. This makes them quite delectable, with a flavor milder than that of sockeye salmon, another fish high in omega-3s from the North Pacific with good summertime availability.
Yet not many people know about albacore season, which runs from about July to October off the coasts of Oregon, Washington, California, and British Columbia. This fishery now boasts certification from the Marine Stewardship Council as sustainable and well-managed. The West Coast albacore fishery uses a hook-and-line method called trolling that results in very little bycatch. The relatively short, unweighted lines stay close to the surface of the water, targeting just albacore.
The fish are hauled in and iced as soon as they are caught, unlike the albacore caught with longlines by fishing boats in the central Pacific. It’s this latter fishery that bears some responsibility for albacore’s reputation for having a dull, fishy taste. Longline-caught albacore are leaner, older fish with a lower fat content.
Seafood stocks in major grocery chains reflect troll-caught albacore’s strange wallflower status. Calls to more than a dozen stores in Portland, Oregon, in the middle of albacore season revealed that only two — New Seasons and Whole Foods — had fresh albacore for sale. Two others said they carried albacore occasionally.
With qualities to win over the health-conscious, the food-loving gourmet types, and the environmentalists, albacore should be more widely eaten. Here’s my list of reasons to put albacore on the menu.
1. Troll-caught albacore are good for your conscience. The Monterey Bay Aquarium rates troll-caught albacore from the U.S. and Canada as a “best choice” for consumers. (Incidentally, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch pocket guide for consumers is now available for iPhones and other smart phones.)
2. Troll-caught albacore are good for your health. In May of this year, the Monterey Bay Aquarium ranked troll-caught albacore from the U.S. and British Columbia as among “the best of the best” on its Super Green List, which evaluates seafood choices according to their omega-3 content and lack of environmental contaminants, including mercury and PCBs. With mercury, the size of the fish matters. Troll-caught albacore is younger and therefore smaller — less than 30 pounds per fish — with resulting lower concentrations of mercury.
3. Troll-caught albacore are a good buy. Compared to other wild-caught North Pacific fish on the market, albacore is relatively affordable. Expect to pay up to $9 a pound for fresh, and $2 to $3 more for frozen. This is still less than black cod, halibut, and most wild salmon.
4. Troll-caught albacore is good year-round, either custom canned or frozen at sea. Both are high-quality choices. Because albacore boats can stay at sea for weeks at a time, some boats blast-freeze to preserve quality, taking the fish down to minus-20 degrees. This extra-low temperature is necessary to prevent the tuna’s oil from turning rancid.
I was resistant to frozen albacore, but then I grilled some and found it nearly as good as fresh. Fresh tuna spends time on the boat before coming to port and then to market, but with the frozen albacore, I could tell by the color and neutral smell that the fish had not been out of the water long before going into the deep freeze. If frozen is your option, buy it still frozen and thaw it yourself in the refrigerator.
5. Custom-canned albacore is packed in its own juices without water or oil, and cooked only once in the canning process. It costs more — more than a dollar per ounce — but once you try custom-canned albacore, it’s hard to go back to longline albacore or skipjack.
Beige-pink in color, the canned fish tastes light and clean, not smelly or fishy, and it holds together in chunks. It comes with a small amount of naturally occurring juices, which you may wish to set aside and add to a pasta sauce. Custom-canned albacore is available online and in some grocery stores.
6. Albacore is a versatile blank slate for cooks. Just don’t overcook it. Albacore is mild, but it does well with strong partners like cherry tomatoes, black olives, capers, and lemon. I hate to say it, but those ad men nailed it when they called tuna the chicken of the sea. You can season it just about any way you want.
Fresh albacore is sold in loins or steaks. The loins are a little bigger around than pork tenderloins and, conveniently, can be seared whole before slicing.
You can also cut the loins into two-inch chunks and thread them on skewers with thin lemon slices and bay leaves that have been soaked in water. Cubing the fish exposes more surface area to the seasoning and to the smoke of the grill. Grill the skewers until medium-rare, then serve them with salmoriglio, a Sicilian sauce for fresh fish made of lemon juice, olive oil, and fresh thyme or oregano.
The worst thing you can do to albacore is to overcook it. You are going for rare to medium-rare, like you would for any other tuna. Take the fish off the heat as soon as it’s cooked on the outside and pink in the middle, and remember that carryover heat will make the tuna cook a bit more.
Finally, don’t be alarmed by uncooked albacore’s soft flesh. It’s natural, not an indication of mishandling or poor quality. Just handle the fish with care. If necessary, you can use toothpicks to hold steaks intact while they cook.
Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon. She is also the co-director of Market Chefs, an organization dedicated to inspiring and teaching consumers to cook local foods.
Chef Kelly Myers shares her expertise in the professional kitchen with the home cook, focusing on ingredients, equipment, and techniques.
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