Tailor (Pomatomus saltatrix; ‘bluefish’ in many parts of their very wide distribution around the world) aka ‘choppers’ around here for their predatory method of coming in behind their prey and chomping with razor sharp teeth, are a fish that have recently made me feel a little guilty, truth be told. While I am quick to defend the culinary virtues of some fish that some anglers are quick to leave behind as bait or ‘rubbish fish’ (like slimy mackerel, bonito, Australian salmon, leatherjacket and even yellowtail scad), tailor has strangely been the fish I’ve been happiest to bypass.
Soft fleshed fish, to the point of being hard to work with for many recipes, hasn’t suited my idea of sea meat, I suppose. And yet allowed to be just that – tender even with quite careless cooking – it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But perhaps the bigger thing is that tailor fishing has rarely fitted in with my ideal of a day out on the water. They are estuary fish, and in my part of the world that means Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay. Beautiful in their own right, but busy.
Approached from the sea, Sydney is (unbeknownst to most) the world’s most spectacularly walled city. Huge, sheer sandstone cliffs rise up like ramparts no castle will ever match. There is an extraordinary ocean wilderness on one side and one of the busiest modern cities in the southern hemisphere on the other (check out my mate Normy’s paraglider crossing of the heads youtube video for some spectacular imagery). The thing is, I so much love fishing outside the walls that tailor have somehow seemed like second class fare to be taken en route. Kind of like a pastry from a petrol station – hard to resist but eventually unsatisfying.
But with an onshore sou’wester and choppier seas than anticipated on a recent outing keeping us from the open water, bay fishing it was. The vast spectacle of the open Pacific would have been all too likely interrupted by the threat of small boating disaster and the inevitability of seasickness. So, a backdrop of container terminals, airport runways, city skylines and scores of other boats on Botany Bay became the setting of a dedicated harvest of the best return on offer. Tailor.
The catch was mostly taken not long after dawn broke, between 6 and 7 in the morning. They are savagely ravenous hunters. We (2 of us) trolled small lures until one of us had a hit, then as they retrieved the fish, the other cast small silver lures in the direction of the action, usually hooking up. When that dried up, we moved on to another troll and repeated, diving birds generally leading the way. We stopped well short of a bag limit, figuring we were missing out on other options that never came through, only to come back to find them (and the Australian salmon chasing the same baitfish) a lot more picky about lures in the full light of day.
Most fisherman tend to favour pan-fried or battered and deep-fried tailor – but a lot of fishermen tend to prefer almost all fish that way. Served with beer. Other fishers’ favourites include smoking and the cheeky recipe offering of “use as bait to catch a snapper [Pagrus auratus]; then cook the snapper”. Whole baked fish seems the best idea to me though. For one thing, and who hasn’t over-cooked firmer non-oily fish like flathead, you are unlikely to get it wrong and dry it out. Tailor are indeed soft and they do indeed taste a bit oily and fishy. Some find baking mutes the slightly strong taste. You can still catch that flavour and use it well by catching it in pan juices and then a sauce. A sorrel sauce (like here), or in any case something with both lemon and herbs (parsley, basil, mint) to balance the strong tailor taste, but using less oil than most recipes may advise and perhaps a bit more salt. Or in my case, pie gravy – this time a variation below on a recently posted recipe (here) – because I am currently a little bit obsessed with the delights of fish pies.
Recipe: Tailor and mussel pie
Lay four tailor out, just overlapping in a baking dish. Drizzle with oil and salt, giving it a rub if you are inclined (don’t worry too much about adding any other flavours because they come later). Cook for 30 mins at 200C; skin should be crinkly but not burnt and the flesh should pull easily from the bone. Let it cool and deflesh; keep the skin with the meat. Pour the pan juices and the fish frames into a pot with a big bunch of herbs (any or all of (in my personal choice of priority) kaffir lime leaf, lemon myrtle, Thai basil, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, sage, rosemary, Vietnamese mint, lemongrass, dill, sweet or perennial basil, mint, fennel, marjoram, oregano, celery and/or lovage). The amount of herbs should be pretty huge, to the extent that it would be silly expensive if they were all shop bought, so it will probably hinge to a great extent upon what you can lay your hands on. Add a cup or so of water and lay 1kg of mussels on top (NZ greenlips, pretty affordable as far as seafood goes, a good sustainable option and a great contributor of both meat and stock flavour – always buy them frozen (outside of NZ) because they all leave the country this way, so why compromise freshness with ‘thawed for your convenience’). Steam the mussels (in the shell ideally) and stop before they start to lose any plumpness. Allow it to cool enough to pick out the mussel meat. Strain the stock and put enough of in a jar to shake with, and disperse, 3 Tblsp flour. Sauté a diced onion and then some crushed garlic in the pot with a generous chunk of butter and when it is golden/translucent, put everything back in with it (with a tsp of smoked paprika if you like) and stir, stir, stir. Sprinkle extra flour if too runny or add milk if too thick, all the time stirring. Hopefully the mix can take ten minutes of this so the flour gets a decent cooking. The tailor will be broken down into a fishy gloop with the nuggets of mussel suspended in it. Add a cup (or otherwise to taste) of grated cheddar cheese, stir in and pour the lot in a baking dish that works as a pie dish. Allow it to cool before covering with puff or other pie pastry and bake until the pastry is right.