Bycatch. Offcuts. Trash fish. Gill to tailfin cooking. They represent a kitchen ethos that is mindful of waste, sustainability, and a restaurant’s bottom line. And sometimes the parts that fishmongers have been tossing aside for years, just turn out to be effing delicious.
Chef Mike Nelson of GW Fins serves a cut that most chefs have never even contemplated. “Nobody ever heard of it. I had to make videos to show people what I was talking about,” he says. Nelson is talking about what he calls swordfish “ribs”. “Each bone separates perfectly, and the meat sticks to the bone. It eats like ribs.”
The cut Nelson speaks of actually has nothing to do with the rib cage or a dainty piece of loin at the end of a bone. It’s the muscle group that controls the dorsal fin of a swordfish.
“If you look at the meat, you know it has to be slow cooked—the musculature, sinew, connective tissue, the bones connected to the fin. It’s a well used group. There’s no way to cook it quickly. With all that comes collagen, too, which is what makes barbecue so good. It breaks down, making melt-in-your-mouth, fall-of-the-bone- meat. But to the naked eye, it looks inedible,” says Nelson.
All that collagen also helps the cut freeze and thaw well, which is important to Nelson because he has a deal with local fisherman and mongers. “I make it clear that they save the weird stuff for us.” Nelson gets in whole fresh swordfish, but around town people know to wrap and freeze the swordfish “ribs” for him. Nelson has been able to set a price for procuring the ribs because purveyors have never sold them before: $1.50 per pound (he pays $8 per pound a swordfish wholesale).
For enough ribs to feed just four people, Nelson needs to receive a swordfish of at least 250 pounds. Since he would need a minimum of 40 to 50 servings for his 210-seat dining room, Nelson reserves the ribs for wine dinners, tasting menus, and special guests. Nelson is still training his supply chain to save swordfish ribs but hopes to get them in directly and more regularly within six months to a year. If you happen to get your hands on a rack, here’s how to cook them:
1. After the swordfish has been broken down and the usual cuts fabricated, cut off the dorsal fin and slice the sinewy, boney muscle group directly under the fin away from the rest of the carcass (including the spine). On average the “rack” will weigh about 8 pounds.
2. Rub the swordfish “ribs” with a traditional barbecue rub: brown sugar, chile powder, coriander, garlic powder, salt, pepper … the addition of New Orleans son Paul Prudonne’s Magic Shrimp also works well.
3. Under a broiler, heat 8 bricks charcoal (about 1 brick per pound swordfish) until they start turning white. Throw about 1 cup hickory wood chips on top. Place in a smoker with the rubbed ribs. (Nelson uses a Green Egg smoker.)
4. Flip the ribs after 30 minutes. Smoke for 3½ to 4 hours total, maintaining a temperature of 200°F in the smoker.
5. Serve with traditional barbecue accoutrement: spoon bread, pickled okra and red onions, collard greens, and maque choux.
6. Brush with a mango-jalapeño glaze, or whatever suits your taste, just before serving.