Swordfish: Delicious fish caught at a high price

Swordfish steaks should have a moist sheen and smell slightly briny, but never fishy. Adobe Stock

May 2023

By Jean Kerr

When we bite into a perfectly grilled piece of super fresh swordfish, we should probably say a little benediction. The fish we are enjoying is often the result of many dangerous and exhausting days at sea.

Two bestselling books published more than 20 years ago, “The Perfect Storm” by Sebastian Junger, and “The Hungry Ocean” by Linda Greenlaw, (sword boat captain extraordinaire) both attest to the inherent risks in “killing fish,” as Greenlaw describes her occupation.

Fishing for a living has always been a dangerous business. Between 1870 and 1880 nearly 1,000 fishermen were lost at sea just from Gloucester, a town with a small population of 15,000 at the time. While advances in safety and technology have made offshore fishing somewhat safer, the old saying from Sir Walter Scott holds true: “It’s no fish yer buyin’ it’s men’s lives.”

Not only do swordfish boast a formidable bill – or sword – according to NOAA, they are “one of the fastest predators in the ocean. Their streamlined body allows them to swim at high speeds, up to 50 miles an hour. Swordfish can grow to more than 1,000 pounds, but the average size caught in the fishery is 50 to 200 pounds.” According to both NOAA and the Monterey Bay watchlist, U.S wild caught swordfish is considered a good, sustainable choice for consumers.

So how do you choose good swordfish?

Assuming you are buying swordfish steaks, look for a moist sheen on the cut surfaces. The color should be creamy pink. The darker flesh that appears is simply colored by a pigment – myoglobin –the same substance that makes red meat red. (Maybe that’s why many who claim they don’t like fish, can be brought around with a nice char-grilled swordfish steak.)

Like any other seafood, your steaks should not smell fishy. If anything, they should smell briny, like ocean but have no other detectable odor. You can ask to smell it, and feel free to ask when it came in.

I recommend buying steaks at least an inch thick that will stand up to grilling or pan searing. If the steaks in the seafood case look at all dried out (they will not be if you’re buying from a good fishmonger) ask to have a steak cut to order. My ideal is about 1 1/2” inches thick.

I like to brine swordfish briefly to tenderize it and enhance flavor. In a non reactive dish, dissolve 1 tablespoon of sea salt in 1 3/4 cups of warm water. Add 1/4 cup organic lemonade and a teaspoon of grated lemon peel. Add a teaspoon of your favorite herbs. Marinate the swordfish steaks in brine for one hour, turning once. When ready to cook, pat dry and season to taste.

Jean Kerr is the author of four cookbooks, including, “Mystic Seafood” and “Maine Windjammer Cooking.” She is the former editor of “Northeast Flavor” magazine and a regular contributor to “Cruising World.”

Grilled Swordfish with Herb Gremolata

Gremolata is a traditional garnish for meat dishes like osso buco, but swordfish stands up well to this kind of bold seasoning. While you are brining your swordfish, you can mix up the ingredients below.

  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped mint
  • 2 large cloves of garlic, minced and/or mashed
  • 1 teaspoon of grated lemon zest
  • 1/2 cup olive oil, divided
  • Salt to taste
  • 4 swordfish steaks, about 6 ounces each

1. Clean, oil and preheat your grill, heating one side on high.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together the gremolata ingredients.
3. Brush steaks with olive oil and salt. Sear steaks on one side over medium high heat, about 4-5 minutes, then flip.
4. Top the cooked side with gremolata and cook for another 4-5 minutes or until just barely opaque and cooked through.

NOTE: Although the USDA recommends cooking to an internal temperature of 145 degrees, I prefer mine a bit more “rare” and take steaks off at about 130-135 and let them rest for a minute or two before serving.