A new kid swam into town with the tuna catch. Tuna fishermen have discovered a swell supply of opah off the coast of California, caught incidentally on long lines.

Tommy Gomes, chief fishmonger at Catalina Offshore Products, has embraced the chance to explore this new protein source. Once a tuna fisherman himself, he knows exactly where they’re being caught. “Take Hawaii and the mainland, put a boat right in the middle, and that's where they're fishing.”

Lucky for us, opah is coming into San Diego instead of landing on Hawaiian auction blocks. Rich and creamy, it has every reason to be part of sustainable, healthy and delicious dishes at home and on menus.

“U.S. wild-caught opah is a smart seafood choice,” a FishWatch report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states, “because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations.” Incidental catch, like opah, is being managed to reduce waste and support biodiversity. The hope is that locally caught opah will be abundant well into the future. “So long as we have boats coming into San Diego,” Gomes says, “I’m sure we’ll be the number one buyer.”  

“They basically look like a big BBQ potato chip,” says Gomes. Large, flat discs, opah flash spotted silver flanks with pink fins, a rosy belly and gold-rimmed eyes. There’s a huge specimen on the wall inside Catalina Offshore’s nutritional educational market. Visit on a Friday or Saturday and you’ll likely find Gomes cooking up opah chili. Fish chili? There’s nothing fishy about it—the ground belly cut cooks up much as beef does, without the meaty tones or cholesterol. A healthy alternative protein, according to the NOAA FishWatch reports, opah is a rich source of omega-3s, protein, niacin, vitamins B6 and B12, phosphorus and selenium. It’s also naturally low in sodium. The dark pink flesh turns white when cooked. Ground from the “tri-tip” abductor muscle, it works well in everything from meatloaf to marinara sauce, and that’s only one of many cuts.

“The abductor muscle is an incredible source of protein with so many different flavor profiles that it’s really exciting,” Gomes says, “and then you have a top loin, center cut, a bottom loin and the belly cut that’s super fatty. I like to tell people who ask how can you cook it—any way you want. You can just beat this fish with a mallet and you won’t damage it, it’s that durable, yet it cooks up extremely soft and moist.”  

Celebrity chef Rick Bayless has San Diego opah on the menu at his new place, LeñaBrava, in Chicago. Locally, chef Miguel Valdez explores other options in his kitchen at The Red Door in Mission Hills. His elegant meatballs feature ground opah “tri-tip.” Your friends and family will never guess it’s fish!

Opah Meatballs

Recipe adapted from chef Miguel Valdez as demonstrated at the Collaboration Kitchen event in April 2016.  

  • 5 pounds ground opah
  • 1½ cups seasoned breadcrumbs
  • 1 cup chopped sweet onion
  • ½ cup chopped pine nuts  
  • 3 teaspoons finely chopped thyme
  • ½ cup Dijon mustard
  • ½ cup garlic, roasted, cleaned and mashed
  • 3 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons pepper
  • 2 cups feta cheese, crumbled
  • Oil for frying

Mix all ingredients well, except the feta cheese. Add the feta last, to preserve the crumbles, and mix slowly for 20 seconds. Shape into meatballs about 2 inches in diameter. Heat oil in a deep frying pan or a fryer at 375°. Slide meatballs carefully into the hot oil for 1 minute. Remove carefully with a slotted spoon and place them on a sheet pan until ready to bake. To serve, bake in a pre-heated oven at 350° for about 5 minutes. Test 1 before serving to be sure it’s cooked through.

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