Among the joys of living along the northwest coast of the U.S. in the summer is the return of the tuna – albacore tuna, to be specific. Now, albacore does not get the respect that ahi gets (ahi is a generic term and refers to the dark red, beefy type of tuna, such as sushi grade tuna), but that is only because most folks only know albacore from its prime use, as canned tuna-fish. While ahi gets the royal treatment as a fresh fish, probably across the entire country now, albacore is seldom found fresh outside of fish markets in the northwest – that’s fine with us! But actually, it cheats fish lovers elsewhere out of an experience that many of us find just short of divine.
I love albacore as a fresh hunk of boneless loin – fresh, it has an opaque, pinky-gray color – in the northwest, you’ll find summer festivals where the draw is BBQ’ed albacore (literally, hunks of albacore marinated in a garlicky salad dressing!) – an experience not to be lightly passed over. But I love it simply grilled with a brush of oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper (a little raw in the middle, please!).
Then there’s the crowd that insist on doing their own canning – most often in olive oil or chicken broth, rather than water – and as such, this canned albacore has absolutely no relationship to the commercial stuff. But, to my taste, there’s simply nothing better than smoked albacore.
Albacore is not a dainty, subtly flavored fish – as with all oily fish, it is loaded with flavor – but its flavor is the essence of the sea, the fresher, the better! But it is that sturdy flavor and oily flesh that makes albacore a prime candidate for smoking – a process that moves it from a mere fish to a product worthy of heavenly adoration.
I got my first chance this year to do some tuna smoking this past July 4th weekend, and in a minute, I’ll share the easy process for smoking tuna – but first, I’ll need to tell you a few things about albacore.
The albacore that are caught here in Oregon in the summer can be anywhere between 10 and maybe 25 pounds each. The meat of the fish lies nicely in four tidy “loins”, which are easily slipped away from the large boney structure running the length of the fish – the loin is then boneless. If you are lucky enough to have albacore available in your local markets, it will usually be offered as a full loin (usually 2-4 pounds each), or pieces cut from a loin. It is not an expensive fish – in fact, in season, it is often the least expensive fish available in the market – maybe as little as $4-5 a pound.
But, if you are near the west coast, anywhere from California up to British Columbia, you can buy whole albacore in Aug/Sep for as little as $2 a pound (if the fish are plentiful that year!) – many boats sell them right on the dock, and most docks have a filleter at work (usually about $3 a fish – although just a few years ago, it was $1). A note of advice; don’t try to do this yourself – it’s not as easy as it looks, and your kitchen will stink for weeks! Also know that the waste of a filleted albacore can approach 40-50% – another tip, always ask for the belly; it is the source for “fatty tuna”, a prime piece of sushi – it also makes superb grilled BBQ (watch the filleters, if a customer doesn’t ask for the belly, it goes into a cooler next to his chair – one told me once that he ate no other part of the tuna).
Smoked Albacore Tuna
(with teriyaki marinade)
Make a marinade (any kind of marinade will work, but teriyaki is especially good)
½ cup of soy sauce
1/8 cup brown sugar
1 large garlic clove, crushed
½ tsp grated fresh ginger
3 Tbs sake or dry sherry
1 tsp sesame oil
Add all ingredients above in a saucepan and bring to a boil – turn heat down to a simmer, and cook for 3-5 minutes.
If your tuna loin is whole, you’ll want to slice it into 1” or 1&1/2” chunks by slicing across the loin (cutting on the bias looks nice!). Place the slices of tuna in a large zip bag along with your marinade and place in refrigerator for 8 hours, or overnight. In the morning, remove the tuna pieces from the marinade and place them on a grate in an open area (like your kitchen counter) for at least an hour or two – they will dry and begin to take on a shine – this is good.
When ready to smoke, build a charcoal fire in a smoker (the type of smoker in my pic is perfect – mine produces a ton of smoke that’s pulled across the meat/fish). Soak some good smoking wood (I use apple from my back yard – any fruit or nut wood is great, as is alder, mesquite, oak or maple.) You can buy a bag of chips for smoking at your local store, but I find it burns up too fast, and is therefore expensive – chunks work best. Put your charcoal on one side of the smoker, get it white-hot, and place some wet wood on top of the charcoal – open your vents just enough to allow a draft to draw air through your fire box and into the main body of the smoker, and out the top exit vent of the smoker. If your vents are set properly, a steady, heavy smoke will be moving past your tuna, but your charcoal will not burn up quickly either – every smoker is different and it takes some experience to find the right settings. You may need to add a few more pieces of wet wood before the tuna is done, and maybe even another 6-8 briquets of charcoal, although either will be a clue that your vents are not set correctly – tuna should smoke well in one hour, have plenty of smoke flavor, and still be somewhat moist.
If you don’t have a dedicated smoker, you can gerry rig a regular gas or charcoal grill to be a smoker – take a large piece of aluminum foil and wrap it around some of your water-soaked smoking wood – tightly seal your wrapped wet wood, punch some large holes all around the packet, and place it on one side of your grill immediately above a heat source – turn on that side of the grill to low and close the grill lid. When the packet begins to smoke, make sure the vents on the grill are set to allow air to enter near your smoke packet, and to be drawn across the tuna, and out the opposite side vent – all other vents should be closed. Now position your tuna on the side of the grill away from the smoke packet, and under the open vent. Watch the flow of the smoke, and when it begins to decrease, flip the packet over – it should again begin to smoke heavily. Try to keep your heat level down low, and the smoke level high – you may need one more packet, maybe even two more, before your tuna is nicely smoked.
Remember, the ideal is to subject your tuna to as much heavy smoke as possible without cooking the meat quickly – Nicely smoked tuna should be completely done in one hour – the pieces closest to the heat source will be done faster/more than those farther away – however, the tuna should still be moist – this is good.
I’ve found that smoked tuna freezes better than any other kind of tuna – so do yourself a favor – if you can get your hands on a few tunas’ worth of loins – and smoke up a batch or two to hide away in the freezer – there is no better tuna-fish salad than that made with these babies!
And it doesn’t hurt to remind yourself, as you munch away on prime smoked tuna while watching the Super Bowl, that this stuff goes for $15 a pound in California … when you can find it!