Saturday, June 4, 2011

on the subject of the Blue Runner, a humble and unadorned fish

The blue runner (Caranx crysos), also called the hardtail, is pretty much the ultimate hook and line trash fish. Caught by fishermen targeting red and vermilion snappers, blue runners on occasion shoal up and are caught in large numbers, but no commercial fisherman wants this, because blue runners (if they can be sold at all) usually go for next to nothing at the dock. They are, as I have been told countless times, bait, not food.

Yet I have talked to folks from India to Turkey to Thailand to Guatemala to Morocco to England who praise the blue runner and its closely related kin, Caranx tille and Caranx caballus. Blue runners are small, with flesh that looks like albacore tuna more than anything else. In taste, they are more like a strong mackerel or even a herring.
It is definitely what folks would call a 'fishy' fish, and certainly could never pass for white fish. Unfortunately, due to its high oil content, assertive taste, and prominent bloodline, it can't really fill in for amberjack, mahi, tuna, or any of the other 'steak' fish. Does this mean, though, that there is no place at the table, so to speak, for the blue runner? Certainly not.

These days, there is a growing appreciation of more assertive and unfamiliar flavors, not just in fish but all foodstuffs, which is really just a return to the tastes of a few generations before. This is a positive development, because there are frankly too many people stomping around on the earth for any nutritional foodstuff to be branded as unpalatable or taboo. On the other hand, no foodstuff should be considered sacred- we would all do a lot better eating differently. But I digress somewhat. There is also a growing understanding of the need to make certain choices in consumption. When choosing a fish, more and more (though not enough) people pay attention to the origin, species, and sustainability. Again, another positive development. Bearing all this in mind, we come back to the blue runner. Let's take a different look at this.

The runner is, like I said, mackerel-y. With the current vogue for preserving (through pickling, curing, brining, smoking, canning, etc) both in restaurants and home kitchens, the runner seems perfect. Not only tasty, but frugal as well. Basically anything done to oily fish can be done, with some modifications to the blue runner, and always with good results. Fishiness aside, it is also great fresh.

On the sustainability side, blue runners are very abundant in the Gulf. They grow and mature fast, and reach maximum fecundity quickly as well. They are prodigious and continuous spawners, which means they reproduce all year, which would of course help them to withstand fishing pressures. On top of that, plankton apparently forms a large part of the diet of adult runners, which places them on a lower trophic level, which is also a good thing (lower level fish are considered more sustainable wild harvest choices).

Now that we've established the possibility that blue runners are worthy for the table, allow me to share a few ways in which they taste pretty good. I like strong fish flavors, my wife is an absolute connoisseur, and our kids have happily acquired the taste as well, so for us, the blue runner is a natural fit. We use it scaled and steaked in curries of course, sometimes we'll poach the whole fish then pick the meat for blue runner salad.

The other weekend, a bunch of runners had come in, and I took a bunch home. We spent the better part of the weekend preparing fish. My wife poached fillets (bloodline in) along with green chiles, whole shallot, garlic, and green Thai eggplants. The whole mix was then pounded in a mortar until all was pureed, then garnished with boiled eggs.
Called soop mah-kheua, the dish is usually prepared with pla dtu, a salted and dried Indian Mackerel.
My wife pronounced the blue runner substitution perfect. We cut some fresh runner into strips, marinated them briefly in soy sauce, then sun-dried them for the better part of the day. The strips (which at this point resembled dried beef) were then grilled over a hot fire.
We also salted fillets (adding to the salt some flavors from our backyard- galanga, makrut leaf, lemongrass, and turmeric), let them sit in the sun for a day, then brined them over night in lime juice, water, and coriander. The next day we smoked the fillets for about 2 hours. I had filleted a couple of fish for the kids (which were grilled), and so decided to marinate the bloodlines in soy sauce with garlic and sesame. They were then grilled, with considerable success. All of this we gorged on that night with sticky rice and a ridiculously pungent sauce my wife made with shrimp paste.

Later on, we canned a bit in olive oil, and have been enjoying the results ever since, as we have the roes, which were smoked, then crumbled to add to sauces and salads.

The point of all this that the blue runner deserves it place. Any fish this versatile merits some respect. But don't take my word for it. I recently had the opportunity to provide some of these fish to Justin Yu for one of his dinners, and his preparation (involving curing and brining) truly made the runner a noble fish. The fellows at Feast have always like the blue runner, and still buy it every time it is available. Just a few moments ago, a co-worker from south India came up to me and, patting his belly, waxed poetic about the blue runner he ate this weekend. The next time you see some (whether in the water or on ice), try them out. No matter which way you look at it, they are a good choice.