Thursday, August 25, 2011

....finally, the Beardfish

I have had the good luck to eat, buy, sell, and trade a great number of Gulf species, and I am as a firm rule familiar with them all. Some fish, though, manage to slip through the cracks, as it were, and I never seem to get around to learning as much as I should about them. I came across such a fish today. It is a strange looking creature whose physical features proclaim loudly that it is a deepwater groundfish. I have seen them many times, and have enjoyed them at the table all too often (strange fish don't always sell, and when one is a self-employed fishmonger, one tends to eat the unsold inventory). They are unique in every way, from appearance to taste- though these very same unique traits call to mind other, more familiar, fruits of the sea. But first, an introduction:

Meet Polymixia lowei, commonly known simply as the Beardfish. No other common names exist (in print) in English. Colloquially on the Texas coast they are known alternately as 'barrel grouper', 'driftfish', 'black driftfish', 'ditchfish', or 'black ditchfish'. And therein lies the root of my nomenclature problem. All of the aforementioned common names apply more properly to other species in the families Nomeidae and Centrolophidae- aka the Barrelfishes, Ruffs, Driftfishes, and Medusafishes. For the better part of three years I was unable to give this fish a proper name- until today, when I finally found it, hidden in the middle of Volume I of Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico (page 693). Obviously, my search was sparked by the arrival of a few specimens, and given the quality and quantity, I deemed further investigation necessary.

Beardfish (another example of a bad name for a good fish) are rather solitary bottom (benthic) fish which live in depths of several hundred to more than 1500 feet. Given this, it would not be wrong to assume that these fish are brought to market almost exclusively by boats deepwater longlining for grouper and tilefish. Their solitary nature prevents them from being targeted, so over-exploitation by hook and line (the only type of grouper gear legal in the Gulf) is not so much an issue. In fact, they are rarely enough taken that a grouper boat might only catch a few in several trips, and those few caught are discarded or used for bait (and they make poor bait). I have no problem with their use as bait, but discarding them is ridiculous, especially as the quality of the meat surely has market potential, even with wildly inconsistent catches. All of this is to say that they are a pretty good choice if you are looking to eat fish rationally. On to the description-

The eyes are large, and the chin features two prominent barbels, or whiskers- hence the name. The Beardfish also has a curiously blunted snout, pronounced underbite, and seemingly toothed lips. All of this together makes Polymixia lowei one odd fish. The family (Polymixiidae) is made up of a few other species of beardfish, and the family as a whole has no close relations. Due to some supposed superficial resemblances, they were formerly sometimes placed within the Berycid family (the most well-known member of which is the Alfonsino). However, the classification has fallen by the side, and now Polymixiformes are considered to be an independent family.

You might notice a few other odd things about the Beardfish, including the large bit of meat extending over the large 'forehead' (see picture). Though that bit cannot be cut out easily (large bones prevent it), it means that the heads are excellent ingredients for the grill or a soup. The fish cuts like most other fish, with large familiar shaped fillets.
Note also the very black belly. Never fear, this is nothing unusual- the lining enveloping the the entrails is in some fish white, others tan, and still others jet black. The lining may easily be trimmed or pulled away, or may be left and peeled after cooking. The position of some bones in the beardfish is unusual, but should be no cause for alarm, as the bones in question are large and easily extracted.

As visually unique as the Beardfish is, its flesh is more unusual still. The meat smells exactly like very fresh whiting (gulf whiting, that is), with a color to match, though at times tending almost towards a slight green hue.....though I must emphasize slight. Upon cooking, the flesh turns a beautiful clean white color.

It is in the eating that the strange nature of Beardfish flesh becomes most apparent. The meat is quite moist with a nice large flake and a taste which calls to mind crustaceans. The flakes, upon chewing, have a texture that is oddly close to crab backfin meat- so much so that I bet a substitution would pass hardly noticed.

The beardfish is known in French as 'Poisson Chèvre', meaning 'goatfish', which, to cause maximum confusion, is also a name for various species of mullet. As far as I can tell, the Spanish name is 'Cola de Maguey', or 'cactus tail' (though I have no idea why that name would have been chosen to describe the Beardfish). Beardfish in Japan are called Ginmedai, where they are not as highly esteemed as they should be, though they are known as good fish to dry, smoke, grill, and eat raw. Speaking personally, I know what will be on our table this weekend.