Albacore tuna from B.C. is just about the perfect fish. Cleaned and frozen at sea, it arrives in your kitchen virginally pale and reassuringly skinless and boneless. Let it thaw just enough so that you can slice it. Sear it, and that’s all you have to do, maybe adding a few Japanese-leaning condiments on the side. (Or you can splurge at Tojo’s, which serves the lushest seared and thinly sliced tataki imaginable.)
Albacore is sustainable—the way it’s caught doesn’t damage other sea life or harm dolphins. Mercury isn’t a problem because B.C.’s tuna are innocent young’uns, so their flesh is relatively unsullied. What’s more, their omega-3 levels are far higher even than those of wild salmon, which makes this a fish that ticks all the right boxes, including that of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada’s Health Check program.
I got to know B.C. albacore tuna some months back at Vancouver wholesaler Albion Fisheries (1077 Great Northern Way) when I shamelessly scarfed down most of a plate of tataki during a presentation. Albacore is rich and buttery, and has a subtle flavour. It’s not rudely fishy—more the taste equivalent of a walk along Spanish Banks on a breezy day.
Larry Teague, president of the British Columbia Tuna Fishermen’s Association, told the Straight that the fish is only in Canadian waters for about two months of the year, usually September and October. His explanation of the albacore’s diet—squid, shrimp, and northern anchovies—and his remark that “they’re almost like piranhas—they go into a feeding frenzy” sound like girls’ night out when Sheryl, Britney, and friends pounce on the appies and caesar salad. (Teague could be describing either when he says, “They’re warm-blooded, so they have to eat a lot.”)
Besides heading up the BCTFA, Teague also cans albacore. His company, Tuna-R-Us, adds a pinch of salt to the fish and cooks it in its own oil. You shouldn’t drain this off, he says, but mix it back into the tuna. It’s a far cry from that 99-cent stuff that looks and smells like cat food.
In times gone by, people didn’t know what to do with albacore tuna, but that’s changing. The first international B.C.–Canadian albacore tuna recipe contest—held by the Canadian Highly Migratory Species Foundation—pulled in over 250 ideas from around the world, with some entrants presenting samples at a reception earlier this month at O’Doul’s Restaurant and Bar in the Listel Hotel.
Kosta Zogaris, owner of Kosta the Fishmonger at the Lonsdale Quay Public Market, has been selling albacore since 1990, which made him an obvious choice as the on-line teacher at www.canadianalbacoretuna.com/. Albacore tuna isn’t available whole or sold as steaks or fillets. As Zogaris explains, each fish ends up as four loins. The top ones are firmer and are used for tataki, and the lower ones for sashimi. Even the odds and ends you get from cutting geometrically precise pieces for sashimi are usable.
“Make chicken noodle soup without the chicken,” Zogaris said in conversation, “and put in the trim.” He also creates a West Coast take on Hawaiian poke (morsels of seasoned raw fish) with albacore. Cured for a couple of days with sugar, salt, and pepper, albacore becomes “one of the nicest gravlax you’ve ever made”. Sliced a quarter-inch thick and drizzled with olive or walnut oil, smoked albacore, he says, is “butter in your mouth”. Juices flowing yet?
Chefs who entered the recipe contest proved how versatile this fish can be. A couple of guys from an Idaho restaurant wrapped a loin in—what else?—thin slices of potato, and served it with creamed mushrooms and red wine sauce. Fish as deep comfort food.
Taking a similarly cozy tack closer to home, Andrea Carlson, the executive chef at Bishop’s, sears tuna and sides it with a purple potato and kale tart, wild mushrooms, and parsley-root pestou. Chef de cuisine Quang Dang has it on the menu for lunch at C, herb-crusted, with a white-bean ragout and bacon foam.
Like salmon, tuna is an amiable fish that gets along with all manner of flavours. Raincity Grill chef de cuisine Peter Robertson was pairing it with chives, leeks, and oysters. On his brand-new menu, he serves rare albacore-tuna loin with a herb emulsion, oyster-and-mushroom braise, bacon, and garlic cream. And at O’Doul’s, executive chef Chris Whittaker turns it into bruschetta as part of a seafood sampler, and features it as a main on his fresh sheet almost every week. Right now, it’s dusted with sesame and togarashi, and comes with pickled nameko mushrooms and a cucumber-and-daikon slaw.
If you want to experiment at home, albacore tuna isn’t hard to find, but you’ll probably need to go to a proper fish shop. It costs about $13 a pound or $20 on average for a whole frozen loin, which feeds three, maybe four. Or, if you’re greedy, fewer.