Thursday, May 7, 2009

Charlie the Tuna and I

Nothing makes life more interesting than having a penchant for fresh tuna.

The hunt for the perfect ‘Charlie’ means you’re constantly on the lookout for tuna that taste good – never mind their lack of good taste.

My first experience with fresh tuna came in Seattle, when someone told me it was still possible to go down to the commercial fishing docks and buy fresh fish right off a fishing boat. It was Thursday, and since I was cooking the Friday night Shabbat meal for Chabad House, planning dinner for 40 on a really tight budget, buying a whole fish off a fishing boat sounded not only easier but more economical than messing around with lots of little cans.

Little did I know.

I found the fishing dock without much trouble, and even found a boat offloading tuna. I admit I had very little idea of what a fresh tuna looked like – I assumed it would look pretty much like ‘Charlie’ the mascot of the Star Kist brand who was something of a TV star at the time. Finally someone appeared on the deck of the boat and I hollered up to the craggy guy, asking if I could buy a fish.
“How big?” he hollered back.

“Big,” I said, thinking of the 40 adult mouths I planned to feed. “A really big one.”

Pretty soon he came down the gangplank, cigarette dangling from his lips, staggering slightly under the weight of something very long wrapped in brown paper. As he came closer, I could see this package was intended for me.

Oh wow. I had no idea a tuna was that big – how could it be? The cans are so small!
“You can’t carry this,” he said, talking around the cigarette. “I’ll put it right in your car.”

I was probably too stunned to say no, let alone change my mind. So he loaded the thing – which must have been a good four feet long, into the back of my hatchback. Based on what I paid for it, it must have weighed something over 40 pounds. As I drove off, the obvious thought occurred to me. Fine, he’d put it into my car. Who was going to take it out?

Well. I got back to Chabad House and of course there was only one person available to do that. Me. So I pulled up in the back alleyway, was lucky enough to find a reasonably close parking place and opened the hatchback. Looking at my passenger again, I was blown away. It was really a very big fish. Not only that, it wasn’t shaped like the TV star at all – TV Charlie had a big head tapering to a smaller body. My dinner guest was torpedo-shaped, very long and biggest around in the middle.

Looking at it, I decided the best plan was to go into the building first, punch in all the security codes and unlock all the doors, then come back and bring the fish in. I propped open the doors and came back for to the car.

By this time, my Charlie had thawed a bit. All fresh-caught fish are “cooled” in the boat at sea, I’ve learned since, and in this case “cooled” meant stiff as a board in the beginning. But by the time Charlie and I were ready to boogie, Charlie was sweating and was now quite limp.

Lifting him out of the hatchback was interesting, I’ll say that. By this time, Charlie’s thawing had pretty much disintegrated the brown paper, so it was pretty much me, wrestling with a nearly nude Charlie.

The only way I could handle him was by hugging him close, fins, wet body and all. It wasn’t so much Charlie’s weight that was the problem. I could lift him – barely – but the real trouble was how unwieldy he was, not to mention slippery. I finally just put my arms around him as though we were dancing – darn near lip to lip – and carried him in.

I can’t even begin to tell you how much I was hoping no one was looking out the window to see this little escapade.

So. We made it into the building, Charlie was draped over the big commercial-sized counter. It was time to do a bit of butchery.

What I really needed, of course, was a saw, but all that was available were the relatively piddley little knives we had. Worse than that, Romeo – the handyman (with a name like that, could I possibly be making this up?) -- wasn’t to be found. Normally Romeo would sharpen all the knives to a razor’s edge, but he had gone AWOL on me – smart man that he was.

Staring at Charlie, there, on the counter, all I could think of was a Julia Child episode where she had a monk fish, I think it was, draped over her TV kitchen counter. The thing was so huge the head hung off one end, and the tail off the other, and Julia was showing us where the best parts were.

Charlie wasn’t quite that big – and if Julia could do it, then surely I could. Of course she would have started the process by pouring a glass of wine, which sounded like a terrific idea. I found some very nice Merlot. As usual, Julia was right.

The first loss was the menu. Struggling with the smallish, none-too-sharp knives meant that the tuna steaks I’d been envisioning were a pipe dream. There was no way I could carve nice steaks.

Tuna as the main course gave way to tuna as a first course, in the form of tuna teriyaki. I’d make a big batch of teriyaki sauce, cut the fish into small pieces, hunks that didn’t need to be uniform, and cook them lightly in the sauce. I’d use only a part of the fish and freeze the rest.

Which is exactly what I did. I have to tell you, that fish was absolutely wonderful. I’d never tasted anything that good. Fresh tuna, as compared to the stuff in the cans, is an entirely different food. I like canned tuna, too, but this was out of this world. Apparently the Friday night guests agreed. Every scrap disappeared – and I had enough left in the freezer to do it again.

After that I bought a lot of fresh fish directly from Seattle’s commercial fishermen – not just tuna but salmon, too. Never again, though, did I tell any of them I wanted a “big” fish. I specified pounds instead. No more waltzing with a Charlie.

Which brings us up to the present.

Yesterday, waiting in line at the fish mongers at the City Shuk, I decided it was time for some fresh tuna again. The fish in the Shuk are way beyond marvelous, exquisitely fresh and interesting. The only problem is, almost all of them are species I’ve never heard of, let alone seen. Not only do I not know anything about them, but I don’t even know what they’re called. So I’ve been playing it safe and sticking to salmon and carp, which I can identify. But yesterday it was time for tuna.

I told the fish monger I wanted six tuna steaks. Fine, he said. Which fish did I want?

“Tuna,” I said.

“But which tuna?” I finally got it. Here, too, I had to buy the whole fish. Then he would cut it any way I wanted.

As I stood there looking confused, he tried again: “How big a fish do you want?”

Before I could catch myself, I heard myself saying, “Big. Real big!”

Nuts. I never learn.

The first tuna he pulled out was way too big -- not as big as Charlie, that’s for sure. But this time I had sense enough to say I wanted something smaller. So he found another one – it’s probably seven pounds or eight pounds. Modest by comparison.

And such a deal! He cleaned and gutted the fish, then cut it into lovely steaks. I’ll cook half for tonight – we’re talking tuna teriyaki again, why mess with perfection? I’ll freeze the rest. He even included the head and fins in the package, so if I’m not ambitious enough to make fish broth, the neighborhood cats will get a Shabbat treat, too.

What a really nice thing it is, having someone else clean and slice your fish!

Shabbat shalom, everyone. For those of you who have “weekends” have a good one!


  1. I've never waltzed with a fish, but I have wrestled with venison that was ready to carve. Your wonderful story brings back memories....I'll be laughing all night.

  2. Fish lips leave a lot to be desired.. pun intended, of course!

  3. Thanks for making me hungry. I wasn't at the Chabad house that night and now I wish I had been.

  4. Yochaved Mariam- This sounds like a very fishy story.

  5. Who me. Pawnbkryid?? A fish story? Never!

    Or almost never, anyway -- ha!