For many years, I’ve been hearing stories of people eating pufferfish and raving about how good they are. One such fellow, a seasoned, salty old-timer, once proclaimed that they were “the sweetest fish in the sea.”
Puffers are a fun fish. They always appear to be smiling, and they have the ability to inflate their bodies, both in the water and out, into a well-formed balloon—a fascinating spectacle indeed. They also have a bunch of cool nicknames, including blowfish, water balloons, blow toads, and perhaps my favorite … sugar toads. There is a small commercial fishery for these fish, mainly around Chesapeake Bay, where they are marketed as “sea squab,” a reference to the fact that they have a shape and texture remarkably similar to a chicken leg when breaded and fried.
Anglers in New York and New Jersey are blessed with a robust fishery of Northern puffers; they catch them by the bucketloads in backwaters, around piers, and at the bases of jetties, using small hooks and clams, bloodworms, or small pieces of squid. But where I live on the south side of Cape Cod, they are a rare summer visitor—although their numbers seem to be on the rise.
Over the years, I’ve managed to catch (or perhaps I should say snag) a handful of them as bycatch, and it’s common for me to see dozens of juveniles when I’m lurking around the backwaters at night in search of blue crabs. However, until the other day, I had never managed to get my hands on one large enough to cook.
I was on my lunch break from the office and, as I often do, I stopped by a local beach to take a few casts. This beach features an outflow from a large salt pond, over which there is a road and a small bridge. During the peak of the day, stripers congregate in the shadows of the bridge, and if you get lucky, you can hook one or two of them before the whole school wises up.
I was pitching a very small, homemade jig upstream, letting it sink to the bottom and then letting the current sweep it under the bridge. On my second cast, I hooked up but knew right away it wasn’t a striper. I assumed it was one of the millions of sea robins that had shown up in force the week before.
When I pulled out of the water, it turned into a balloon … a puffer! The fish was just barely snagged in the belly, so I hastily scurried up the rocks to make sure it didn’t fall back into the water. I ran to my truck, placed it in the bed, quickly bled it, and drove straight to the closest Kwik-E-Mart to get a bag of ice, and then I raced to my house to procure a small cooler.
Back at the office, I spent most of the afternoon watching YouTube videos on how to clean and cook a blowfish (don’t tell the boss).
But Aren’t Pufferfish Poisonous?
There are over 120 known species of pufferfish, which belong to the family Tetraodontidae. Most species do indeed contain toxins, but the Northern puffer is an exception. However, I should note here that our local waters also host smooth pufferfish, which are bad news and should absolutely not be eaten. They are much less common than Northern puffers and are usually encountered in deeper water. They also tend to be much larger than their northern counterparts, and most of their skin is smooth, not bristly like a Northern puffer.
The internal organs and skin of a smooth puffer contain the neurotoxin Tetrodotoxin, which, according to the FDA, is deadlier than cyanide, and there is no known antidote.
Smooth pufferfish flesh, known as Fugu, is considered a delicacy in Japan, where only highly trained sushi chefs are allowed to prepare it. Do not attempt to eat one.
Cleaning a Puffer
There is more than one way to skin a cat (or so I’ve been told), and it turns out that the same holds true with puffers. I watched four or five different videos on cleaning them and no two were alike. Essentially, you don’t want to fillet a puffer; instead, you should separate the tail section from the skin and the head, and then cook it whole, on the bone.
The first step is to skin it. Carefully cut through the skin all the way around the fish at the base of the head. Next, run your fingertips under the skin on the top of the fish. This will separate it a bit and make it possible to grab the skin with a pair of needle-nose pliers. Get a firm grip on the head with one hand, grab the skin on the back of the fish with the pliers, and gently pull it toward the tail. With any luck, all the skin (and fins) will peel off, let’s say, just like a sock.
Next, place the fish on a cutting board and use a sturdy chef’s knife to chop off the head. Remove any guts still attached to the meat, give it a good rinse, and you are ready to go.
After conducting a fair amount of research, I discovered that sugar toads can be grilled, baked, steamed, or sauteed, but the consensus was that they really shine when fried. Some recipes called for coating the fish in flour, others called for breadcrumbs, and the one that really caught my attention called for frying it in crushed Goldfish crackers. I did not have any Goldfish crackers in my pantry, but I did have Ritz crackers, which I figured would make a worthy substitute. I also had some fresh fluke that I’d caught the weekend before. Time for a fish fry!
- 1 puffer, cleaned
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1/2 cup Ritz crackers, crushed (I use the low-salt ones)
- 1 tablespoon JO #2 crab seasoning (or Old Bay)
- Salt & pepper
- Canola oil
- Lemon wedge, hot sauce, and chopped parsley for garnish
Place the flour in a bowl and blend in the JO seasoning. Beat the egg in a second bowl and add the cracker crumbs to a third. (I like to crush the Ritz crackers right inside the sleeve they’re packaged in, but make a small hole at one end to allow air to escape.)
Give your puffer tail a good seasoning of salt and pepper, dredge it in the flour until well coated, dip it in the egg, and then roll it around in the cracker crumbs until well coated.
Place half the remaining cracker crumbs on a plate, add the coated fish, and then dump the remaining cracker crumbs on top.
Refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour. Over time, the salt draws moisture out of the fish, which turns the flour to glue, which makes the breading adhere much better when it’s fried. (I use this same technique with pretty much everything I fry.)
Now, take a cast-iron skillet and preheat it over medium-low heat for 10 minutes (when the pan’s handle is hot to the touch, it’s ready to go).
Add in a about 1/2 inch of oil and wait about another 3 minutes until it begins to shimmer and just starts to smoke. Gently add the fish and cook 3 to 4 minutes per side until golden brown. Remove it to a wire rack (not paper towels!) and give it a light sprinkle of salt. Serve with lemon wedges, a bit of chopped parsley, and a drizzle of hot sauce if you dare.
What amazed me was that there were no ribcage bones on the fish. You devour everything, except for the spine, just like a chicken drumstick. The tail acts as a little handle, but it, too, is edible.
I must say, these are remarkable-tasting little fish. The meat is fairly firm, not unlike chicken, but what really surprised me was the amount of sweetness in the fillets. That old-timer was right—these might be the sweetest fish in the sea and I can picture myself pile-driving about a dozen of these things in one sitting….
In the summer of 2021, I had my first taste of another summertime visitor, the Northern kingfish. Much like puffers, these little fish are found in decent numbers in New York and New Jersey, but are less common in the waters of southern New England. Like puffers, their population seems to be moving northward, and they can now be realistically targeted in our waters. And, like the puffer, these fish have a number of confusing regional nicknames.
In the Mid-Atlantic and Florida, kingfish (both northern and southern varieties) are often referred to as “whiting.” This is a misleading name as a true whiting is a member of the cod family found in the Gulf of Maine. Down south, they are also often referred to as “sea mullet,” another deceptive name because these fish are in the drum family and have no resemblance to a true mullet. The term “kingfish” is also used to describe the king mackerel, which is a completely different type of fish altogether.
Whatever you want to call them, what these fish lack in size, they make up for with good flavor. They can be a fun target in the surf late in the summer when striper fishing is in a lull, before the inshore pelagics show up on the scene.
Look for kingfish on sandy beaches, where they are often tight to shore, feeding in the wash on the first drop-off from the beach.
They are fairly aggressive, and I’ve caught them on epoxy jigs dragged across the bottom during lulls in the action while albie fishing. But if you want to catch enough for a meal, chunk little pieces of bloodworm, squid, or clam on small hooks close to the beach. Kingfish are also found in back bays and estuaries, which is where the ones I ate last summer were captured.
The fillets are the perfect size for a mighty fish taco, which is how I prepared mine last summer.
The next time I catch some, I plan on trying the intriguing recipe below. It was suggested to me from OTW reader Dan Xeller, who claims it is his favorite way to prepare northern kingfish. Dan pan-fries the fillets, and servers them atop a Perloo.
What’s A Perloo?
Perloo is similar to a Cajun jambalaya. It originated in the “Lowcountry,” which is a coastal region in northern Georgia and southern South Carolina. Perloo is a classic dish in that area, and there are a boatload of variations of it. It’s most often made with shrimp, but other versions include oysters, chicken, sausage, wild game, and fish. Essentially, whatever meat you have on hand can go in the pot. Add some rice, spice, and veggies, and you’ve got yourself a perloo.
The dish also has roots in Africa. Back in the 1700s, Charleston, South Carolina, was a major entry point for African slaves brought to this country, and the city’s cuisine reflects those African roots. African rice was introduced and cultivated, which is an entirely different species than the Asian varieties much more common in American cuisine.
African rice cultivation ended in the early 1900s, but it has recently made a comeback and is now sold as Carolina Gold rice, which is actually a hybrid between the old African rice and Asian rice. For a truly authentic Lowcountry Perloo, you can purchase Carolina gold rice online, but feel free to substitute it with the much more common (and cheaper) basmati white rice.
- 8 Kingfish fillets, pan-fried
- ½ pound bacon, diced
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
- 2 celery stalks, diced
- 1 green bell pepper, diced
- (1) 14.5 oz. can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
- 1 cup long-grain white rice
- 2 cups fish stock (or chicken stock)
- Dash of cayenne
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
- Salt to taste
Cook bacon in a heavy pot over medium-low heat, stirring often, until it just starts to crisp. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towels to drain, reserving about 3 tablespoons of the bacon drippings in pot.
Increase heat to medium and toss in the onion, celery, and bell pepper. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, until vegetables soften but haven’t begun to brown, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring often, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add wine and scrape up the browned bits from bottom of pot. Stir in the tomatoes and crushed red pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for 10 minutes. Stir in stock, rice, and butter, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until rice is tender, about 18 minutes. Give it a taste and add salt and pepper as needed.
While the rice is cooking, pan-fry the kingfish fillets (you can use the same recipe for pan-fried puffer above). Plate a heap of rice, top it off with fried fish, sprinkle on some parsley, and give it a squirt of lemon juice and hot sauce.
The post Catch and Cook: Northern Kingfish and Northern Puffer first appeared on On The Water.
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