A few years ago I bought my first whole albacore, directly from a fisherman on a dock in Astoria. It was $1.50/lb., and I was cavalier and cocky in my purchase, insisting then that I could handle the butchery myself. It took some sips of bourbon and a sharp knife, but I nervously stumbled through it without much of a hitch. Obviously, I’m a total pro now. The tuna in these photos, used for teaching Sarah Gilbert to butcher (and can) her own, is my third.
Though some may have missed my sarcasm, I do aver that it only takes two or three attempts to make fairly adept butchery possible. It helps to not be put off by dismembering theretofore intact creatures and plunging one’s hands Swatch-deep into their cold viscera (thank you, BS in biology!), but a really sharp, sturdy knife will do most of the heavy lifting. And albacore tuna is an especially forgiving fish to start with – its bones are thick and perpendicular in orientation, making them an ideal guide for the tip of your knife.
After wiping the fish down and taking a step back to admire its steely beauty, slice open the belly and alleviate the fish of its insides (Sarah called her eldest boy in to gawk at the pile of guts on the counter, but as is usual when he’s a visitor of our home, Everett was in the middle of a rousing game of Animal Crossing and was Unimpressed). I usually remove the pectoral fins with kitchen shears, then cut off the head and set it to a stock pot (with a chunky mirepoix, peppercorns, bay leaf, bouquet garni and half a bottle of dry white wine). The fats in the fish will cushion this poaching liquid as it turns the head to unctuous stock, and after an hour you’ll have succulent collar meat for salads or noodles.
My first cuts are always ginger, only-the-tip slicing motions along the side of the fish where the hue of the skin turns from slate to silver. Once I find the spine, I poke the tip of the knife around until I hit the lateral set of bones and just run the knife along this guide. I completed the first loin, then passed the knife to Sarah and she completed the task three more times, each more deftly than the last.
I instructed her on the cleanup of each loin: judiciously removing the unattractive bits of blood line, nimbly pulling out errant bones and running her fingers through the web of fascia to pull off the stiff skin in one piece. Then we cut the loins into 2″ medallions and push these into hot half-pint jars (some with a slice of lemon rind), topped off with salt water, wiped the rims, set the lids and nestled them seven-per-batch in the pressure canner. One hundred minutes later (between 10 and 15psi), canned tuna was in her possession. My kitchen sang with small, tinny music as the lids popped percussively, one by one.
I felt like a proud mama bird sending Sarah home with her cooler of tuna loins, my pressure canner and a wave of encouragement to finish the remaining processing alone, and though she started her subsequent batch with a bit of trepidation, she’s now such a seasoned pro that she’s passed the fishmongering vibe to others in turn. The seed has been planted. So, so much more satisfying than giving a (wo)man a fish.