Surprise! They’re really not bad to eat.
Oh sure, you say, you’ve long heard of eating amberjack. But we’re not talking AJs, or any of their first cousins, or any fancy jacks like rainbow runners or bar or even yellow jacks. We’re talking plain old everyday crevalle jacks, and we recommend you don’t skip to the next story unless you already know how good jacks are to eat. After all, were a quarter-million Bahamians wrong about conch fritters? Throughout the Bahamas and the Caribbean, jacks of all kinds are esteemed for their rich flavor and firm flesh.
So, if you are inclined to ignore the following revelations and rely on the advice of others, do yourself the favor of clarifying one simple point. Ask anyone who disparages the flavor of crevalle if they ever have eaten it. Likely they are just passing on a rumor started by some fish lover long ago, so he could have all the jacks for himself.
You don’t have to do anything you shouldn’t do with any other good fish you intend to eat. Step one being to immediately ice the fish alive, which does two really good things. First, it draws most of the blood into the fish’s internal organs, in a survival reaction for the fish, and as a flavor enhancer for you. Never mind what you may think of a juicy beefsteak; blood doesn’t do anything for a fish’s flavor, or its appearance. Remember the last time you kept a fish alive on a stringer or in the livewell, and killed it with a fillet knife? Remember what a bloody mess the second fillet was compared to the first half, from which all the blood drained into the bottom side of the fish?
Icing your fish alive remedies that problem almost completely. And if you’ve got the time, slicing through the fish’s gill arches while you hold it overboard is a very quick way to get rid of all its blood before you put it on ice, or especially if you don’t have any ice to put it on.
The second thing ice does for a fish is make it firm, and thus ideal for slicing. Fillets from iced fish are just plain prettier and, third but not least, way less likely to breed bacteria picked up off the fish-cleaning table.
You can, of course, make all kinds of fancy maneuvers with a fillet knife, slicing away the red meat on the fillet to avoid the strong flavor. I didn’t with three jacks I put through the (stomach) acid test, just because I didn’t want to do anything different than I ever do with other fish. Unless you count taking them to a master chef.
For my test of crevalle I enlisted the help of Fort Myers chef Vollen Loucks. Vollen Loucks is not an Army-trained 94-B-20-type cook, as I was, but a guy whose pinot noir sauce could transform tongue of combat boot into haute cuisine. Besides which, Vollen will be the first to tell you he is not a real seafood lover, although that did not stop salmon from being his restaurant’s biggest seller.
So it was that I showed up at Vollen’s back door with a half-dozen fillets of crevalle on ice. The sultry August day before, the 2- to 3-pound fish had been buzzing about in Punta Gorda Isles canals. They were bled when caught, filleted and skinned within a couple of hours of being iced, but otherwise had not been given special treatment of any kind.
The first thing Vollen did was appraise the fish for texture, noting the flesh was very dense, not unlike tuna. He deboned each already ribless fillet by cutting out the pin bones almost all fish have running down the center from the head end, toward the tail. The bones are more easily felt with a fingertip than seen. For a whole-fillet presentation, the pin bones can be cut out, leaving a V-shaped notch. Or the fillet can be cut in half lengthwise before the bones are sliced away. Vollen notched two fillets and cut the others in half.
Each piece of fish was seasoned with sea salt and white pepper. The first then was dredged in flour and sautéed for a minute or two per side in vegetable oil that was just beginning to smoke from high heat. In compulsive chef fashion, Vollen also threw in some smoked tomato meats and roasted red peppers, which of course were absolutely delicious, but which did not appreciably alter the flavor of the fish. Then with a big glug of white table wine (a California chardonnay), he lit up the whole mess like Disney World on the Fourth of July, deglazing the dish until the liquid was reduced to a glorious sauce.
You are of course saying sure, the last thing the cat dragged in would have tasted good if it was gussied up like that. That jack sure did, even by Vollen’s standards, but that was not the half of the experiment.
The next fillet was simply tossed on a 90,000-B.T.U. grill that etched dark brown crisscrosses into each side, while leaving clear juice in the center. There was no stopping Vollen and his sauces, one of which was purée of prickly pears he had plucked from a cactus patch outside his back door. The artfully drizzled sauce was as vibrant to taste as it was brilliant to behold, but it served as it should have—a mere complement to the delicious flavor of the grilled jack, which we agreed was even better than that sautéed.
I ate the whole fillet without coming up for air, as I had done the first, after allowing Vollen a taste. For his finale, he deep-fried the remaining pieces after they had been dipped in egg wash and breaded in cornflakes.
“Like everyone does crunchy grouper,” Vollen said, “everyone” being the competition in his tier of the restaurant trade.
With the crunchy jacks he provided two dressings—a homemade rémoulade and a mango mayonnaise—either of which was to die for if your arteries were not up to the task. Fortunately, I was too stuffed to do more than taste the combinations, both of which were splendid, as by that time we expected. What was unexpected was how unbelievably good the remaining seven pieces of fried jack were after I doggy-bagged them and ate them cold, one by one, straight out of my refrigerator over the following two days.
So there you go—sautéed, chargrilled or fried crunchy, there doesn’t seem to be a way to mess up a jack, save one. Back in my brief tenure as a snook guide, I had a repeat customer who was a light-tackle bluefish fanatic from Long Island.
On one trip, he and his son-in-law doubled on a couple of typically ferocious jacks that would have pushed 10 pounds, after which he inquired if it might be possible to take the fish home for dinner. I knew he liked bluefish, so I noted the jacks weren’t a poisonous species, but at the time I had to admit I had only tried them one way. That was smoked on a charcoal grill, after soaking the skin-on fillets in brine for 15 minutes. I didn’t add that my experience had included a quantity of cold beverages that I couldn’t be sure hadn’t colored my opinion of the results, which I had thought were good.
He thought that a reasonable risk, so I bled and iced the fish, and then made sure I got a full report on the results.
“Not bad,” he said of the jacks, which the whole family had eaten. “But the next time, I don’t think I’d soak them in brine. They were awfully bland.” FS