Saturday, October 26, 2013


Bonito, a great fish.

I think I’ve finally got all my ducks in a row. Or, fish, actually.

Last month when I was in Sevilla for a few days, I encountered tapas of a fish called melva. I found melva in the fish market there too, but I’ve never seen it in my local market. Melva somewhat resembles bonito, a fresh fish that I buy frequently. But, is that the same as bonito del norte, the canned fish that I buy regularly for “tuna salad”?

I pulled out my fishy reference books—Alan Davidson’s The Tio Pepe Guide to the Seafood of Spain and Portugal (Santana Books); Seafood, A Connoisseur’s Guide and Cookbook, by Alan Davidson with sensational watercolors of fish by Charlotte Knox (Mitchell Beazley), and Manual del Pescado by José Carlos Capel (R&B Ediciones).  The Alan Davidson books are really helpful because they give fish names in several languages, including regional variations in nomenclature.

I also consulted, an amazing on-line data-base of fish worldwide and their names—and variations—in many languages. (That was where I found out that “rosada,” a widely marketed fish in Spain, is the “pink cusk-eel” and comes from the south Atlantic. When a market fish vendor tries to tell me it’s “fresh,” I know better, as it is always frozen, then thawed.)

Here’s the ducky list.

Melva is Auxis rochei, the frigate mackerel (although not actually a mackerel). According to Davidson, it is abundant in the Bay of Cádiz—which explains why it’s so ubiquitous in Sevilla.

Bonito is Sarda sarda (note—not tuna), known in English as bonito or Atlantic bonito. In Japan, bonito is an important ingredient in the cuisine. In Spain, this is an excellent blue fish, very meaty, fairly economical.

Bonito del norte is Thunnus alalunga, albacore tuna or long-finned tuna. In Spain, it’s known as atún blanco, white tuna (to differentiate it from “red tuna,” blue-finned tuna). In summer, albacore is fished off the northern Cantabrian coast. Much of it goes to the canning industry, but, fresh, it is used in the wonderful Basque dish, marmitako, tuna with potatoes.

As I’ve said before: Love the fish you’re with! I’ve got me a pretty bonito (no, I did not find out why bonito—which means “pretty”—is called bonito). Note the dark longitudinal stripes.

While flipping through the pages of Capel’s fish manual, I came across a fine recipe for bonito, calling for olives. As you may remember from last week, I’m on an olive roll, so this suited me just fine.

Bonito and its “blue” relatives, such as mackerel, sardines and tuna, are often prepared in escabeche, a vinegar marinade for cooked fish. This recipe is reversed—more like an adobo, as it is marinated—but only briefly—before cooking. The marinade is reduced to make the sauce.

(This recipe is adapted from one published in Manual del Pescado, by José Carlos Capel and attributed to La Cocina Andaluza by Miguel Salcedo Hierro).

Fillets of bonito with olive sauce.

Bonito Fresco con Aceitunas
Marinated Bonito with Olives

Serves 4 as a starter or 2 as a main dish.

1 whole bonito, about 2 pounds
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup white wine
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, slivered
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Sprigs of thyme
Fennel flowers (optional)
½ cup water
1 cup pitted Manzanilla olives, sliced
Flour, for dredging
Olive oil, for frying

Cut off and discard head and guts. Cut the flesh into four fillets, leaving the skin on. (Besides the center spine, the bonito has a row of bones running down the middle of each half.)

Fish fillets in marinade.
 Place the fillets in a single layer in a non-reactive bowl (glass or earthenware). Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add the oil, wine, vinegar, garlic, bay leaf, parsley, thyme and fennel, if using. Cover and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours.

Remove the fillets from the marinade. Place the marinade in a small saucepan with the water. Bring to a boil, then simmer until reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Strain the liquid and discard the garlic and herbs. Return the liquid to the pan and add the olives. Simmer gently.

Dredge the bonito fillets in flour and fry in hot oil until golden on both sides. Serve hot or cold with the olive sauce.

Crispy on the outside, moist fish on the inside. Olives are a piquant sauce.