With Chilean sea bass on conscientious consumers' no-no list, black cod gets a rich, new name — sablefish — and a new place on environmentally friendly tables, thanks to the fish's plentiful supply, silky flesh and ability to marry well with a variety of culinary styles.
REMEMBER CHILEAN sea bass? How large, luscious flakes of it practically melted in your mouth? It was easy to love. And because it was almost impossible to overcook, chefs loved it, too. But all that love nearly spelled disaster for the poor creature, as poachers and profiteers practically fished out its breeding grounds.
Thankfully, a “new” fish that mimics the finest features of Chilean sea bass is swimming into town. What’s more, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list gives it a “Best Choice” ranking for environmental friendliness — if it’s fished from British Columbia or Alaska, where the fishery is also certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.
The name of the newcomer? You choose. Originally known as black cod (which some experts spell blackcod), renamed sablefish by clever marketers (sounds better, don’t you think?), Anoplopoma fimbria is also sometimes referred to as butterfish.
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Seattle-based seafood marketer and former fisherman Jon Rowley calls it “the aristocrat of the North Pacific” because it’s in the cold waters along the Northwest coast that this elegant, deep-water, bottom-feeding species thrives.
In those deep waters, the fish builds up high levels of oil, which give black cod high nutritional ratings. One 3 ½-ounce serving boasts 13 grams of protein with heart-healthy omega-3 fat levels that rival wild salmon and only moderate mercury levels.
According to Rowley, in recent years, most of the sablefish catch was exported to Japan. There, “gindara” is often used for sushi or broiled or grilled kasu-style with a simple marinade that may include kasu paste, the sediment left over from making sake.
Three men are widely credited with making kasu black cod mainstream on Seattle menus: Tom Douglas (during his stint as general manager at Café Sport, and later in his restaurants), Shiro Kashiba (then at Nikko, now sushi master at Shiro’s) and Wayne Ludvigsen (while chef-ing at Ray’s Boathouse, now with Charlie’s Produce).
But not until recently did diners really start seeing the fish prepared in “Americanized” ways.
At Anchovies & Olives on Capitol Hill, chef de cuisine Charles Walpole often features sablefish on his menu and claims it sells briskly.
“Black cod is popular to work with because it adapts to so many cooking techniques, and its richness allows it to be paired with even the strongest flavors and garnishes,” he says.
While many sablefish recipes call for skinless fillets, Walpole prefers to leave the skin on because it “crisps up nicely and adds a lot of flavor.” But if you cook it at home, he advises, make sure you scale the fish and wipe it dry first.
At the restaurant, Walpole cooks it several ways. The most popular dish is seared, then poached in olive oil. He also serves Pan-Roasted Black Cod with Tomato Broth and Lardo (cured salt pork) and Seared Black Cod with Manila Clams, Fingerling Potatoes and Salsa Verde.
My own favorite is Maple-Glazed Sablefish, which pays homage to the traditional Japanese kasu method with a maple syrup-sherry marinade but skews Northwest with a tender tumble of blanched corn kernels and butter-basted wild mushrooms.
Braiden Rex-Johnson is the author of “Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining.” Visit her online at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
For the sablefish
½ cup dry sherry, such as Amontillado
½ cup pure maple syrup
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
4 (5-ounce) sablefish fillets, skin scaled and left on
For the vegetables
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus extra for buttering the parchment
1 cup seasonal wild mushrooms, such as chanterelles or morels, cleaned, and halved or quartered if large
1 cup white corn kernels, blanched (See Cook’s Hint, below)
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 tablespoon snipped chives
Freshly ground black pepper
Freshly squeezed lemon juice
1. To prepare the fish, bring the sherry to a simmer in a small, nonreactive saucepan. Stir in the maple syrup and thyme leaves. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
2. In a nonreactive baking dish, arrange the fillets in a single layer and pour over the marinade, turning so all sides of the fillets are covered with marinade. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours, turning the fillets occasionally.
3. Twenty minutes before cooking, remove the fish from the refrigerator. Place the oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and butter the paper.
4. Arrange the fillets skin side up without crowding and drizzle with the leftover marinade. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the fish just flakes.
5. While the fish is cooking, melt the 1 tablespoon of butter in a small skillet over medium heat. When the butter starts to foam, add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the corn, stir well, and cook until just warmed through. Stir in the shallot and chives and season to taste with salt, pepper and lemon juice.
6. To serve, divide the vegetables among 4 dinner plates. Place a sablefish fillet, skin side up, on top of the vegetables. Spoon any juices from the baking sheet around the fish and serve immediately.
Cook’s Hint: To blanch the corn, immerse an ear of corn in boiling water for 5 minutes. Immediately plunge the corn into an ice bath. When cool, pat dry, cut off the kernels with a sharp knife, and measure 1 cup.
— Courtesy of chef Charles Walpole