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Off the Fork: Finger food of the daring

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Fried blowfish with gremolata — parsley, garlic and lemon.
Fried blowfish with gremolata — parsley, garlic and lemon.

Eating fish can be complicated and no fish is more daunting than the blowfish.

Aren’t parts of it poisonous? Why does it look nothing like a fish? Is it even edible?

To those who hesitate to eat a creature that looks like a spiny piñata, I say, you eat pineapple, right?

Cast aside doubt, tuck a napkin into your collar, pick a blowfish up by the tail and start eating.

When they are cleaned and ready to cook, a blowfish looks like the drumstick on a chicken. They are meaty and delicious but, like a drumstick, there’s a bone (actually cartilage) down the middle of the fish to nibble around.

The poisonous blowfish (called fugu) is a delicacy that must be cleaned by specially trained and certified fish cutters in the city of Shimonoseki, Japan. The blowfish caught in the mid-Atlantic coastal waters of the United States are safe, since they do not feed on the creatures that create toxins in Japanese blowfish.

The toxic blowfish are 6,739 miles from here — another excellent reason to buy local.

For decades blowfish were scarce, but they have been making a bit of a comeback and are now available at fish stores throughout the area. They are most plentiful in May and September and this year they’ve been floating into fish stores all summer.

Isabella Clark at Southold Fish Market recalls catching blowfish with her hands in shallow water when she was a child. Nowadays, you can buy blowfish from her at Southold Fish Market (Main Road in Southold) or on the Island at Bob’s Fish Market  or Clark’s Fish House (both on North Ferry Road). Clark’s is also at the Shelter Island Farmers Market on Saturdays but shop early because they sell out quickly. These delicacies are available for about half the price per pound of swordfish, tuna or flounder.

When you see blowfish on the menu at East End restaurants, it’s generally deep fried, with a batter or panko bread crumb coating.

Here are two ways to cook blowfish at home, without the benefit of a deep fryer. Both involve garlic, which is a natural partner to this spiny, antisocial and delicious fish.

Fried blowfish with gremolata
Serves 4 as a main dish, 6 as an appetizer
½ cup flat leaf parsley, leaves finely chopped
Zest of 1 lemon
1 large clove of garlic, peeled and finely diced
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 lbs. of cleaned blowfish, about 24 fish
3 cups of cooking oil, e.g. shortening, canola oil, peanut oil or a mixture of all three.
1 cup all purpose flour
¼ cup coarse ground cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground pepper
½ teaspoon red pepper

Make the gremolata by stirring the parsley, lemon zest, garlic and olive oil together in a small bowl.

Scrape the gremolata into the middle of an ovenproof platter and let it heat in a 250 degree oven to allow the flavors to mix.

Rinse and dry the blowfish with paper towels. Heat the oils in a 12- to 14-inch heavy frying pan (cast iron is ideal), with sides at least 3 to 4 inches high, to 350 degrees.

Mix the flour, cornmeal, salt, pepper and hot pepper together in a shallow bowl. Dredge the blowfish in the flour/cornmeal mixture and cook each one for about 3 minutes per side, until each side is lightly browned.

Transfer the blowfish to the heated platter as they finish cooking and sprinkle the gremolata over the blowfish to serve.

Sautéed blowfish with a tarragon/wine reduction
Serves 4 as a main dish
2 lbs. blowfish, about 24 fish
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil
4 garlic pods crushed and diced
½ cup white wine
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon, finely chopped
Salt to taste

Rinse and dry the blowfish with paper towels and dredge them in the flour.

Heat a 14-inch skillet over a medium flame; add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and sauté the garlic until it is fragrant but not browned. Remove the garlic from the oil and set aside.

Add 2 more tablespoons of the oil and place several floured blowfish in the skillet, being careful not to crowd the pan. They should sizzle as they touch the pan.

Cook each one for about 3 minutes per side, until lightly browned.

Remove blowfish to a serving plate. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the oil, add the wine, reserved garlic and tarragon and cook, stirring over high heat until the wine reduces and you have a syrupy sauce.

Pour this over the blowfish and serve.