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Albacore is the affordable tuna option

It occurred to me recently that Pacific albacore doesn't get the respect it deserves. Not in the "sushi-grade-yellow-fin-tuna" sort of way.

I mean, really. Even albacore's price practically screams affordable. At least in relation to its budget-busting cousin, Mr. Yellow Fin — aka, ahi — tuna.

So don't be fooled by price, not in this case. Some of my best summer grills have been centered around fresh, local, line-caught Pacific albacore. Whether loosely draped in foil and poached in wine, lemon and herbs or cooked straight over the coals after a brief stint in a teriyaki-style marinade, those exquisitely lean loins always turn out firm yet tender and flavorful.

And like all the other summer wonders that only appear during these halcyon days, our greatest culinary imperative at the moment should be the pursuit of these decadent harvests from field and ocean. Indeed, every summer-into-fall, as schools of Pacific albacore are migrating from the coastal waters off Northern California toward British Columbia, local fishing fleets seize the opportunity to bring fresh offerings of it ashore.

Some weeks it's more challenging than others because albacore prefer swimming in water temperatures of 58 to 70 F, even if they have to swim several hundred miles out to sea to find it. The larger boats usually are willing and able to follow, leaving the smaller vessels behind to intercept the albacore as they swing closer to the coast. For this reason, even though we're still enjoying the run of albacore, you can't always expect to find it in the marketplace. It all depends on where those warm and cold currents are flowing.

At my favorite fish shop in downtown Corvallis, Harry Daughters will happily share his cooking tips with you. His latest involves a basic marinade of soy sauce, sesame oil, olive oil and fresh ginger, which he says needs at least an hour in contact with a hefty chunk of albacore loin or kabobs (half an hour in the fridge and half an hour at room temperature). His crowning glory is the addition of fresh peach quarters, skewered alongside the tuna and grilled to perfection.

For a more indirect approach to grilling, you could follow one of my evening delights from a while back. I fashioned a shallow roasting pan out of heavy-duty foil. While the grill was heating up, I finely chopped half a Walla Walla sweet onion, half a rib of celery, about six plump mushrooms, a backyard tomato and a fresh serrano chili. I tossed all of those ingredients with some fresh corn kernels I'd just sliced off the cob, a bit of olive oil, a healthy pinch of salt and an aggressive cranking of black peppercorns.

I laid the albacore pieces in the center of the foil pan, rubbed them down with some olive oil, salt and pepper, then arranged my little fresh salsa mixture all around the fish, letting a little of it hang out on top to flavor the tuna from all angles. After about 40 minutes of indirect heat, dinner was done.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

  • Whole loin — Each albacore has four wedge-shaped loins that radiate out from a central backbone. They taper in thickness, thinning as they approach the tail, and should be totally boneless. They are sold either skin-on or skinless.
  • Loin cuts — Cross-cut sections of the loins. Like the whole loins, they are boneless and trimmed of the dark meat (which tends to have a stronger flavor).
  • Steaks — Cross-cut sections of the fish, which includes the backbone and dark meat located near the backbone. The dark meat tends to be slightly stronger in flavor than the light meat, so you may want to remove it before cooking. The skin is typically removed before serving.

COOKING ALBACORE

First, be sure you're working with outstanding albacore. It's gotta be fresh! Since albacore has a tendency to dry out quickly, all albacore cooks agree, it should be cooked just until it becomes firm to the touch. Some like to leave the center pink, while others take it just slightly beyond that.

Beyond thoughtful cooking, albacore tuna doesn't need any special treatment to be delicious. A simple grilling is most certainly an honorable and healthy way to prepare this seasonal delight. But I tend to take this fish in the direction of the ocean from which it came, the Pacific, as in Pacific-Rim cuisine. Something you'd encounter at Aqua Seafood Restaurant in downtown Corvallis, which speaks to my own true passion when it comes to the merging of Asian-Hawaiian flavors.

Thanks to Aqua's owner, Corvallis chef and restaurateur Ian Duncan, I've developed a few new and decadent approaches. It begins with a classic butter sauce, beurre blanc. For the uninitiated, beurre blanc is a reduction of white wine and/or vinegar and shallots into which a large amount of butter is whisked, one dollop at a time, until a rich and creamy yet tangy sauce is formed. The result? Heaven! Beurre blanc's zippy yet velvety character makes it a perfect compliment to grilled albacore.

For Duncan, that's merely a starting point. One time over coffee, I asked him how everyday cooks could inject the same sort of Pacific Rim/Hawaiian regional influences into their nightly menus that he and chef Adam Kekahuna bring to Aqua. One approach, he advised, would be to incorporate a few Asian/Hawaiian elements into said beurre blanc. Shredded bits of fresh ginger, a drop of sesame oil, and a splash of soy sauce, for example. I have discovered this to be an exciting way to achieve Asian-influenced flavors in elegant style when working with albacore.

Two of my results, the Mustard Butter Sauce and the Spicy Black Bean-Garlic Butter Sauce, are spin-offs from a classic beurre blanc. And even though they're certainly rich, the idea is to use them sparingly, as an accent to the grilled or roasted albacore. If you add a third element, such as the Tomato Ginger Relish or a simple cucumber salad tossed with vinegar, chopped green onion and coarsely ground black pepper, then you lighten the dish even further.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.