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A Fish Story

June 23, 2017 | Frank Bonanno

I love fishing.

My father was an avid angler, crazy for the sport. That’s him at the bottom of this post. An old newspaper clipping, he’s the handsome guy holding the shark’s head. My dad could spend entire days laughing with a group on the ocean, or alone in his head with the fish and the sun and just Skeet, the captain, whetting a line, drenched in sun. I get it, too, because it’s never a bust to go out for fish. If the light’s fading, you can always jig for bluefish in the end, and it’s fun, jigging for bluefish. Problem is catching them. If you catch them, you have to eat them, and no amount of lemon can flavor up the oily gamey things that they are.

But it’s always great just to be on the boat.

When I was in culinary school, my dad and I went out to The Canyons, where the big game fish are. That wasn’t our first trip to The Canyons, but it was our best. The best ever. I had to get up at three in the morning to drive all the way from Hyde Park to Mantoloking, then up the coast, my father and I, a couple of other guys and Skeet. Skeet’s boat is slow,  30 miles an hour tops, so it was a long, beautiful ride through 200-foot deep water to where the continental shelf suddenly drops and the depth plunges to a thousand feet or more. Imagine an underwater Grand Canyon, with all the rocky crags and narrow fingers–but these canyons are beneath the ocean, filled with salty water and the giant fish that make for campfire legends: Yellowfin and Albacore, White and Blue Marlin, shark and Wahoo.

By the time we got all the gear set and the outriggers going, it was nearly 8 to get to trolling. On this trip, we were there for the tuna, six lines out, and somehow there in the heat and wind and ocean, the universe just aligned. There must have been a school of tuna below our boat, so many hitting the bait at the same time that the four of us were scrambling over one another to fight the lines. We caught such an abundance of tuna that we had to leave early, richly exhausted, beat by the sun and the struggle, our 150 pound limit reached. Back in Mantoloking, we filleted the fish and spread the love to our neighbors, Skeet, his friends, local restaurants, even. Everybody got tuna.

My love for fishing has never been so much in the hunt or the fight, though I’m a capable fisherman. My love is in the telling of stories. On the boat ride out, in the cool of the morning, the tales are tepid, light and funny, half lulled to sleep by the slow ride. When we first started trolling, the talk is about the last time we were here, how big the fish were, how that trip was the best trip and remember those liverwurst sandwiches with the onions, by God, you’d nearly throw up just talking about them. The truth is, I love liverwurst sandwiches. Like so many things in life–like fishing–my dad gave me this joy by packing me a liverwurst sandwich whenever we went out on a boat together. To this day it’s my favorite. It tastes like summers down the shore.

By the boat ride home we’re salty and sweaty and maybe boozy, a louder crew, and the stories and the fish get bigger and more robust by the telling. That trip, though, back in college at The Canyons with my father, it really was the best fishing ever, my dad with his strength and patience, the tuna enormous and biting, the company joyous and spent. I’ve been to that spot a half dozen times since, sometimes the whole day without a catch. But not that trip.

Right about the time my first son was born, my brothers and I started a tradition of father-son fishing trips with my dad. I miss that. Those last couple of trips, my dad was in a lot of pain. He’d had a shoulder replacement, and really the only reason for it was to keep fishing. He went in to have the other shoulder done, but it was too late. They found the cancer then.

We had to skip the trip one year because that shoulder and the chemo were doing battle to get the better of him, but he was a fighter, my dad, and he’d do anything to catch a fish. He patiently stood the worst of it and found his way back out.

On our last father-son fishing trip, on the last night out, Dad caught a fish literally in the final moments of the day, just as the sun dipped into the ocean. It wasn’t his biggest fish, but it tipped him to win the pool for Most Caught, and it made him proud–proud for the win, proud because he was vibrant and sturdy and here with five sons just doing what he loved. The captain ran it down for him there toward the end, but my dad was strong; he brought it in on his own.

The next year, we talked about my father on the way out to sea, the waves sleepily teasing out stories as they do. By the trip home that last fish he ever caught was the biggest and we laughed until we cried, my brothers and me.

The first time my son went fishing, he was four and he caught a fluke. That’s Luca and the fluke in the photo that leads this journal. Luca’s lucky that way. Patient.

When Luca was 12, I begged my brothers to let him join our trip, to turn it back into a father-son trip for me, and Luca caught a tarpin his first time out. I was so worried his lean little frame wouldn’t be able to reel it in, that fish with a head bigger than my sons, but he’s strong, Luca. He was the only one who caught a fish at all that trip.

We’re all getting older now, my brothers and me, my sons, and the fishing trips don’t happen every year. Life gets in the way. I look at the photo my son, four years old, impossibly small, my hand helping him hold the fluke. I wonder if, when he’s forty, he’ll immerse himself in a kitchen, alone with his thoughts, or happy with the rhythm of other cooks talking and working the way they do. I wonder if one day he’ll bite into a peanut butter and cream cheese sandwich and it will taste like Denver winters.

Summer Halibut

Serves 2

 

Ingredients

 

Basil Oil

 

3 cups fresh basil

1 cup fresh parsley

1 cup olive oil

 

 

Risotto

 

3 ears of corn, shaved off the cob

1 clove diced garlic

1 shallot, diced

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 tsp crushed red pepper

3 Tbsp olive oil

½ cup chanterelle mushrooms

1 tsp salt

½ tsp pepper

 

 

Halibut

 

2 6-ounce portions of halibut

1 tsp salt

½ tsp white pepper

Basil oil

 

 

Tools

Small sauce pan; medium mixing bowl with iced water; colander; blender; chinois; medium lidded bowl. Knife; medium sauce pan; colander; small mixing bowl; blender; medium sauté pan; wooden spoon. Small sauce pan; wooden spoon. Medium sauce pan; metal spatula. Large sauté pan. Four serving plates.

 

Process

  1. Chop the basil and parsley.
  2. Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Blanch basil and parsley; drain; plunge in to ice bath.
  3. Strain. Purée in blender with olive oil. Let rest overnight. Strain through fine mesh strainer with cheese cloth to bowl cover if not using immediately. (Basil oil will keep in refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.)
  4. Shave the corn off the cob. Set 1/3 of it aside, and toss the rest of the corn into a pot. Cover with 2 inches of water; bring to a boil; simmer 8 minutes.
  5. Strain the corn from the pot; set aside the liquid.
  6. Place the strained corn and a small amount of the liquid in a blender. Purée.
  7. Sauté the diced shallot and garlic with the uncooked portion of the corn in olive oil until just warmed.
  8. Add the corn puree and crushed red pepper. Cook 5 minutes over low heat. Taste for salt and pepper and hold warm.
  9. Dice the remaining half shallot and sweat into the olive oil. Once translucent, toss in the chanterelles, salt and pepper. Cook 6 minutes over high flame.
  10. Heat oil over high heat; sear the halibut 4 minutes each side. Salt and pepper to taste.

 

To Serve

Place the corn risotto in the center of each plate. Lay the mushrooms around the risotto and rest halibut in the center. Drizzle with basil oil.

 

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