by Amy Gaw
October 2, 2020
Capt. Greg Mayer sells the sizzle and tuna steaks are his commodity.
Mayer and his boat, the Fishin’ Frenzy, have been central figures on National Geographic Channel’s hit program, “Wicked Tuna: Outer Banks,” for six seasons. For the cameras, drama is vital and Mayer is talented in enhancing the fishing experience. He is also skilled in catching tuna in real life, which he’s done professionally for more than 40 years.
Behind the scenes, in his home kitchen or at the grill, Mayer has little need for the theatrics. When tuna is on the menu, he prefers his grilled on a salad. Straight from the mason jar works, too. If the tuna is bluefin, it is a simple sear or raw.
“I don’t cook fancy fish,” says Mayer, “I make a mean Caesar salad, though. I could eat that every day, topped with grilled fish.”
His kitchen partner and longtime love, Henni Rains, agrees: “We keep it pretty simple.”
Bluefin tuna, the type landed on “Wicked Tuna: Outer Banks,” is much larger than the more typically caught local yellowfin tuna. Bluefin is most often sold as an export, to be served as sashimi or sushi in high-end restaurants.
There is a specific time of year that bluefin can be caught and there are seasonal limits to how many fish can be caught; this number is called a quota. The quota determines the duration of the season. Once the quota is reached, the season is finished.
Catching tuna is a hugely popular sport for recreational fishers and several types of the species are caught offshore in the Gulf Stream. Yellowfin, longfin (albacore) and blackfin are much more accessible to everyday anglers than bluefin.
With the differences in sizes of the bluefin and yellowfin, there is a difference in taste and texture, too. That means there’s not a one-size-fits-all methodology for cooking tuna.
“Bluefin has more fat in the flesh, and it is darker meat,” says Mayer, “It is much better raw, or seared, and leave it raw in middle. Hit it in hot skillet, maybe with some sesame seeds. Slice it thin with soy and wasabi. That’s about as fancy as it gets.”
“You don’t want to overcook bluefin; it gets tough and rubbery,” says Rains, “Yellowfin can stand to be cooked through. That’s why they are good canned.”
Mayer and Rains live in South Nags Head with their dogs, Little, an 8-year-old chocolate lab, and Taylor, a 5-year-old brindle pit bull. Rains founded and operates Dune Dawgs Rescue, a nonprofit pit bull rescue organization.
Rains also has a background in food and knows most of the dramatic tricks to make the tuna steaks sizzle, too. Both just prefer not to use them. The duo recently purchased a midcentury modern house and are busy restoring and renovating it. They added a new stove. Still, no fancy sauces or set-ups. No sous-vide. Jerked or smoked tuna? Not recently, they say.
As for saving some for later, if they do freeze fish, Mayer says it’s mostly tilefish and vacuum packed in tightly sealed bags. “Drying the fish is important before you freeze it. Dab it with a paper towel before you put it in the bag.”
Mayer also reminds those cooking fish at home to never rinse fish with tap water. The meat will immediately begin to deteriorate. Instead, make a quick brine if you must rinse the fish. “The brine I am talking about is just really salty water,” says Mayer.
They do put up tuna the old-fashioned way — in a jar. “I learned how to can tuna from my family, my mom” says Mayer, “We used to can a lot. The key to canning tuna is to soak it in brine for a bit, to get the blood out.”
Do they make tuna salad with all that canned tuna? Absolutely. They do not, however, agree on their choice of dressing. Rains is a Duke’s Mayonnaise fan and Mayer grew up on Miracle Whip and remains faithful. It’s OK, says Mayer, “Henni makes little tiny bowls, I make big ones.”
The couple agrees on the rest of the ingredients. A bit of chopped red or green onions, celery, and “no pickle,” says Mayer. “No. No pickle, ever,” says Rains.
Mayer’s Mean Caesar Salad with Grilled Tuna
Yield: 2 big salads
1 tablespoon anchovy paste
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons Worcestershire
1 tablespoon mustard or wasabi
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 egg yolk
Tabasco Chipotle Pepper Sauce
black pepper grinder
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1/2 cup croutons
2-3 heads romaine, chopped
- Into a large wooden bowl, grind a lot of freshly ground pepper.
- Add anchovy paste, olive oil and garlic.
- Make a paste, use a fork to mash it all together.
- Add Worcestershire, mustard or wasabi, balsamic vinegar and the egg yolk. Pour the lemon juice on top of the egg yolk, add a few dashes of Tabasco and combine ingredients.
- Add Parmesan, croutons and chopped romaine. Toss. Finish with a bit more cracked black pepper, portion on to plates and top each salad with a piece of hot, grilled fish.
If you are new to canning, read the guide provided with your high pressure, canning equipment. You will absolutely need a pressure cooker to preserve tuna this way.
The high heat kills the bacteria that may lead to spoilage. These are a few extra tips from Mayer and Rains.
Brine the tuna loin before putting fish in canning jar. Soak the tuna in icy brine for a few minutes to a few hours; this will remove the blood from the fish. Brine is simply very salty water. Mayer fills a cooler with ice, water and a lot of salt. He then adds all the fish he wants to process.
Working next to the cooler, pull fish out and cut to size. Wide mouth, pint size jars are preferred. The tuna is cut to fit in the jars and the wide mouth size accommodates the filets.
Add a teaspoon of olive oil to the bottom of a clean, sterile, pint sized jar before adding fish. The tuna will produce its own juice. The oil will help prevent the fish from sticking to the bottom of jar.
Layer pieces of tuna in the jar until it is almost full. Leave about an inch of
Before adding new, sterile, lid, use a bit of vinegar on a towel to wipe off the rim of the jar. This removes any excess oil. A clean rim is essential for a tight seal.
Set up pressure cooker, fill with jars and cook for 100 minutes when the pressure gauge reaches 15 pounds of pressure.
“Don’t be tempted to add rosemary, peppercorns, or other aromatics. The flavor doesn’t really get infused and the pressure cooking just makes it not pretty,” says Rains.
Finish sealing by waiting for jars to cool and that satisfying sound of the lid
pressure popping into place. Twist on sterile jar bands and store in cool, dark location.