Have you discovered the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market, San Diego's outdoor fish market?
Every Saturday morning, well before its 8 a.m. official opening, crowds converge on the pop-up market's tents along Tuna Harbor Pier off Pacific Highway between Seaport Village and Ruocco Park, seeking the freshest of fish, just off the boats of San Diego's fishing fleet.
You won't find any salmon or Dungeness crab there, because they aren't caught locally, but you will encounter the market's stars: several ahi tuna varieties - tender yellowfin, bigeye and bluefin - and the gloriously beautiful opah, all sold whole or in portions. You'll also discover less commonly seen species, like sheepshead and escolar, typically available only at specialty fish markets and rarely found at supermarkets.
You can also observe commercial fishermen demonstrating how to cut an opah or tuna into edible portions.
And no need to hurry; by 9 or even 10 a.m., after the hordes depart, there's still plenty of fish available, before the market's 1 p.m. closing. Best of all, parking (free until 10 a.m.) is more plentiful. There's also more opportunity to talk to the fishermen and their families who staff the booths and get advice on what to buy along with its preparation.
That's how, on my first visit - longing to buy a whole 25-pound yellowfin tuna but, ever practical with a family of just two adults and one hungry cat, I resisted temptation - I chose a 2½-pound rockfish and received a simple but delicious recommendation to bake it whole with onions, tomatoes, garlic, parsley, olive oil, seasonings and white wine.
While San Diego is no longer the "Tuna Capital of the World," the city still boasts an active fishing fleet. Many Tuna Harbor-based fishermen came together to start the market and are working with the Port District and its developer to ensure the market not only survives but receives improved facilities in the waterfront's redevelopment.
Since its opening in August 2014, the market has become a mecca, both for selling fresh fish and also for educating the public about the benefits of consuming responsibly harvested, locally sourced fish, rather than the often bleached, chemically treated mostly Asian-imported fish that provide 80 percent to 90 percent of Americans' seafood.
Most San Diego-caught fish are shipped elsewhere, explained David Haworth, fisherman and owner of five local fishing vessels, but he estimates the market now sells up to 10 tons of fish weekly.
Kelly Fukushima, owner of F/V Three Boys, is a passionate advocate for the market and eco-friendly fishing techniques, enabling his crew to harvest from healthy fish stocks while protecting sensitive species.
"I love the whole aspect of going (to the market). There's a real desire of people to be connected with their food source. They want to know that seafood is responsibly caught and that we're not taking more than we need," he said.
Fukushima, who catches and sells swordfish seasonally from his boat and to restaurants and specialty vendors, explained that the quality and freshness of the fish depends on how it's harvested and handled once it's landed. While fishing techniques vary, he considers line-caught fish preferable and a high-quality refrigeration system using salt water rather than fresh water ice essential. It's critical, he added, that freshly caught fish be properly "bled out" to ensure highest quality.
Fukushima, when asked how to cook his catch, responded as most commercial fishermen do: "Simplest is best. I like to taste the fish."
He recommends grilling swordfish, tuna or other "meaty" fish like opah, wahoo or mako or thresher shark, using salt, pepper and oil, with soy sauce and wasabi on the side. Grilling kebabs, with fish chunks interspersed with vegetables or fruit, is another option.
While swordfish can range from 150 to more than 800 pounds, at the market it's sold cut in steaks for home cooking. Portions of other large fish, such as opah, tuna, mako shark, wahoo, mahi mahi and monchong, are available as fillets or loins, which can be roasted whole or cut into steaks for grilling.
If you buy a whole fish, don't fear having to dress it at home. After its opening, explained fisherman and diver Pete Halmay, the market added a "cutting booth," where, for a small fee, skilled fileters, often fishermen themselves, will clean the fish for you, cutting larger fish into loins or filleting smaller fish.
A fish, once cleaned, yields about 60 percent of its original weight. You can discard the head and bones - they return to the boats as bait — or take them home for soup. Or, as one filleter observed, the ahi closest to the bones makes the best poke.
If you can't get to the Saturday morning Tuna Harbor market, many of the same fishermen also sell to local fish markets such as Catalina Offshore Products, Point Loma Seafood and El Pescador, all offering excellent quality and regular hours.
If you'd like to try the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market, visit the market's website at thdocksidemarket.com and sign up for Friday emails that list weekly offerings.
And let yourself be tempted by a whole tuna — as I may be next time.
Larson is a San Diego freelance writer.
Basic Fish Stir-Fry
Fishmonger Tommy Gomes often whips up this stir-fry while demonstrating fish cooking techniques at Catalina Offshore Products. This is a great way to use up trimmings from a large fish such as opah, tuna (any variety), swordfish or wahoo, or try using cubed fish or ground opah, plus leftover rice.
Makes 4 servings
2-3 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil
1 pound ground opah or cubed tuna, opah, swordfish or wahoo (ono)
2-3 cups mixed sliced fresh vegetables (such as zucchini, yellow squash, onions, cabbage, bell peppers, eggplant, mushrooms, carrots
Large pinch of freshly ground pepper
½ teaspoon Kosher salt
2 cups cooked leftover rice
1/3 cup Hoisin sauce, or to taste
¼ cup Japanese mayonnaise or Thai sweet chili sauce, or to taste
In a stir-fry pan or skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add fish and vegetables and stir-fry two or three minutes. Add pepper and salt. Mix in rice. Mix in sauces and blend well. Adjust seasonings and heat through before serving.
From Tommy Gomes of Catalina Offshore Products
Roast Tuna Loin
This makes a festive but easy dish for entertaining. Prepare this just as you would a roast of beef or pork, adjusting seasonings to your taste.
Makes 4 to 8 servings
2-4 pounds tuna loin, any variety
4-6 cloves of garlic, mashed
½ cup chopped fresh parsley
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste
1 cup extra virgin olive oil for basting
1-2 pounds red or gold potatoes cut in large chunks
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Slit tuna loin down the middle. Mix together mashed garlic, parsley, salt, pepper and 1-2 tablespoons olive oil.
Pack mixture into tuna and tie in several places with cooking twine. Place in baking pan, surrounded by potato chunks. Drizzle tuna and potatoes with 1 cup olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Roast for 25 to 30 minutes (smaller loin) or 40 minutes to 1 hour (larger loin), basting with the olive oil periodically. Let rest 10 minutes before slicing and serving.
From Tommy Gomes of Catalina Offshore Products
Simple Grilled Fish
For added flavor, rub the fish with sliced garlic. You can also marinate it for 15 to 30 minutes in a squeeze of lemon or lime juice, a sprinkle of olive oil and salt and pepper before grilling or sautéing. Serve plain with lemon or lime slices or with fruit salsa, romesco sauce or soy sauce and wasabi.
6-8 ounces swordfish, wahoo (ono), mako or thresher shark or tuna steak per person
Salt and pepper to taste
1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Heat oil in pan or heat grill and add fish steak. Except for tuna, cook about 8-10 minutes per inch (four to five minutes per side) thickness for well done, or less for medium rare, but cook swordfish through. For tuna, sear one to two minutes each side for rare, or cook longer to taste.
Use this to complement grilled or sautéed fish or pour over fish before baking.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 cup cubed ripe but firm mango (1 to 2 mangoes)
1 cup cubed ripe Mexican or red papaya (about ¼ small papaya) or cubed fresh pineapple
½ cup chopped green onions, mostly white portion
2 large cloves garlic, mashed
1 cup diced sweet red pepper (1/2 large pepper)
1/3 cup finely chopped cilantro (about half bunch)
¼ cup lime juice (about 2 limes)
½ to 1 jalapeño or serrano chili, according to heat preference, finely chopped with seeds and membranes removed for milder flavor
Salt and pepper
Combine equal quantities of mango and papaya or pineapple with remaining salsa ingredients. Adjust seasonings and spices to taste. Chill to blend flavors 1 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally.
Makes about 4 servings
1/3 cup whole blanched almonds, toasted
1 slice firm white bread, crusts removed, in pieces
2 large cloves garlic
½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
½ cup bottled red or mixed red and yellow roasted peppers, drained and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons red wine or sherry vinegar
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
In a food processor or blender, grind almonds, bread, garlic and pepper flakes. Add roasted peppers, vinegar and salt and process. Slowly add oil and season with black pepper.
Adapted from Epicurious.com