A Cook's Diary

Independence Day Dinner: Mussel Soup and Grilled Tuna

The title is not meant to sound patriotic. I don’t believe that patriotism can be gauged by how much local food one eats. It just so happened that because today, Independence Day, is a public holiday, we were able to drive all the way to Farmer’s Market in Quezon City to buy fresh panga ng tuna (tuna jaw or collar) and fresh mussels. It’s been a long time since we grilled tuna and we’ve been planning the drive to Farmer’s Market since last night. And since it isn’t all that often that we get a chance to go there, I made the most of the opportunity by buying tuna belly and salmon fillets as well. But let’s talk about the tuna belly and salmon fillets another time — after I have cooked them as they will sound more exciting then.

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For now, let’s talk about the mussel soup and the panga ng tuna. The mussel soup recipe is nothing new. My recipe has not changed over the years and you can just refer to the savory mussel soup recipe in the archive which is one of the earliest entries in this blog. The only difference between that one and this one is the addition of malunggay leaves.

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I added the malunggay leaves to the water about three minutes before the mussels and they were nicely cooked by the time the mussels shells opened.

What I wanted to to tell you about is the grilled tuna. You can grill the tuna in the oven but there is nothing like charcoal-grilled fish. Most people place the fish directly on the rack but unless you are able to control the temperature well, there is the risk of burning the outside of the fish while the inside remains undercooked OR, WORSE, burning the fish totally inside and out. The risk is doubled if you brush the fish with barbecue sauce or butter or both. Personally, I think it is a bad idea to brush fish with barbecue sauce because the sauce drowns out the natural — and delicate — flavor of fish. But brushing with barbecue sauce or butter is a common trick to prevent the fish from drying up during grilling.

My husband, Speedy, has a totally different way of dealing with the drying out problem. He wraps the panga in banana leaves. Then, he covers the grill to keep as much of the moisture in. Here’s how he did it tonight.

We had two pieces of panga, each weighing about 750 grams. In the market, we had each piece chopped right down the middle. Now, a banana leaf has two sections, right, separated at the center by the stalk? You don’t need the stalk, you need both sides of the leaf. Take two whole leaves (you can buy banana leaves sans the stalk in wet markets and some supermarkets) so you have four half-pieces. Take one half-piece, place a half-piece of UNSALTED panga on one edge then roll the banana leaf until you have a neat parcel. Do the same with the rest of the panga. Don’t think the wrapping is too thick. You’re going to slow cook the fish on the grill and the panga needs all the protection it can get against the direct harsh heat.

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Place the rack about six inches from the burning coals then cover the grill. That’s a makeshift grill that Speedy used — concrete flower planters that used to be planted with horsetail until the cats decided the horsetail were nests, sat on them endlessly until Speedy finally said he might as well use the planters for grilling. They’re great for grilling, as it turned out. They’re made of concrete like I said and the effect is like one of those wood-fired outdoor ovens that the Greeks and Italians still use in the countryside. The food is evenly cooked and has that unmistakable smoky flavor.

So, you place the banana leaf wrapped panga ng tuna on the rack and you grill them for an hour, turning them over after 30 minutes of cooking. Now, if you’re grilling smaller pieces of fish, the grilling time will, of course, be shorter. The one-hour grilling period is good for a kilo and a half of panga ng tuna.

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By the time grilling is done, the banana leaves will be very scorched but the fish will be moist and tender. See, that’s the nice thing about fish heads — the succulent and sticky ligaments or whatever you call the jelly-like parts make the flesh very moist and somewhat sticky and totally delicious.

Serve the panga ng tuna with a dipping sauce of kalamansi, soy sauce and crushed chilis and enjoy.

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