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The Best Piece of Fish I've Ever Eaten


zoramargolis
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Yesterday morning there was a large white delivery truck parked at the bottom of my driveway. A tall, grey haired man named Jim Chambers lifted the rear door, letting out a quick blast of cold air, and hopped in. “I’m going to shut the door to keep the cold air in, but I’ll be back out in a second.” He pulled the door down, emerging a few moments later with a large white plastic bag. In it was my fish—a 7 1/2 pound black cod, or sablefish, which he’d picked up earlier at Dulles after a flight from Alaska.

I’ve been corresponding with Jim via e-mail for several months now, after finding out about him from Drive-by-Critic, who lives in Jim’s neighborhood. Jim is a seafood dealer who sells super-fresh fish from Alaska and the Northwest to many of the best restaurants and fish markets in town. His business, called Prime Seafood, is a one-man operation. He’ll sell to private individuals, like you and me, as long as we are willing to deal with a whole fish. I got my name on Jim’s e-mail list and have been getting regular updates about what he’ll be getting in (usually at the end of a week), and I’ve been trying without success until yesterday, to get a sablefish from him. He’d say he was getting king salmon, halibut and sablefish, and I’d request one, and then get an e-mail back that no sablefish had come. Until yesterday.

Why sablefish? Why not get salmon? Well, salmon weigh 10-12 pounds each, and sable are around 7 pounds. At $10-$12 a pound, it’s not an insignificant investment. And then there’s the fact that good wild salmon in manageable pieces is possible to find, albeit expensive. Sablefish is highly perishable. It’s hard to find at any price. And it’s really, really delicious.

Jim carried the fish into my house and put it in my refrigerator while I wrote him a check. He'd offered to deliver it to my house, because it’s on his route from Dulles to the restaurants downtown. We talked a bit about how to cook sable. I gave him a taste of the artisan white miso paste from Massachusetts that I have in my refrigerator. After he left, I took a better look at the fish, which was headless and gutted, but hadn’t been scaled. It was large and a bit daunting. I called a friend and left a voice mail for her, asking her if she wanted to share the fish and the cost with me.

Later in the day, I cleared the decks in my kitchen and got ready to deal with my fish. There’s a reason that scaling fish is usually done outdoors or in a fish market that can be hosed down. No matter how carefully you work, the scales become airborne. I worked in the sink, under running water, with short strokes. Still, there were scales and water spraying up into my face. I did the best I could. When I worked at BlackSalt, I did not do the fishcutting and fileting, but I have seen it done many times. Still, it takes a lot of skill and experience to filet a large fish neatly. Given my lack of skill and experience, I did an okay job. I’d give myself a B-. There was meat clinging to the frame that a more skilled fish cutter would not have left behind, but I trimmed it off and cubed it, along with other scraps, and kept it for a fish stew—which is what they do at BlackSalt. The bones and tail went into a stockpot, and I got an aromatic fish fumet simmering on the stove. The filets ended up weighing slightly less than four pounds. I had 1 1/4 pounds of chunks and pieces for stew. My friend, who had offered to buy 1/4 of the fish, gave me $20 for a little over a pound of primo filet.

I was thinking about cooking some of the filet for dinner and curing the rest to make smoked sable, when my daughter called and told me that she had invited four friends over for dinner. At seventeen, she is at the stage where she is constantly seeking opportunities to be anywhere other than at home, and so I always welcome her friends to our dinner table. It means I get to see her in high spirits with her buddies, and hear some of what is going on with them, and at school—which she is reluctant to share with us otherwise. So, I dropped the cured sable idea, made some extra miso mixture, added another sliced cucumber to the salad, and improvised a quick dessert with what I had in the fridge: an oven-roasted fruit compote of pears, figs from our tree, and blueberries, which I ended up serving with a mixture of Greek yogurt, crème fraiche, vanilla and honey.

The fish filets were cut into serving-sized pieces, slathered with a thick paste made of white miso, ginger, mirin, lime juice and soy sauce and roasted in a 450 degree oven for around 9 minutes. The fish was served on top of Japanese green tea noodles with a broth made with the miso paste mixture diluted with fish stock, and some sautéed green beans with sesame seeds. Small dishes of thin-sliced cucumbers in seasoned rice vinegar with cilantro and jalapeño pepper were served on the side.

The girls were chattering away as I served up the food and were waiting for me to sit down and join them. When I did, everyone dug in and suddenly there was complete silence at the table. I took a bite of the fish and looked around. Everyone was dumbstruck. I heard a few quiet “wow’s”. Jonathan looked at me and said; “This is the best piece of fish I’ve ever eaten in my life.” I had to agree. The texture was delicate and custardy, separating into large, fat, soft flakes. The flavor was ethereal and sweet. The miso paste on top of the fish had browned and gotten slightly crisped and the complex, mellow flavor of the miso with the slight sweet-sour edge of mirin and lime, which was echoed in the broth, gave the fish a wonderful depth of flavor without overwhelming it. The girls took up their chattering again, but every one of them ate every bite on their plates. Jonathan and I quietly savored our portions, knowing that from now on, the girls at our table would be comparing every piece of fish they eat with the one they were enjoying tonight. It was that good.

My friend hasn’t cooked her fish yet. She’s having it tonight. Lucky lady.

Jim Chambers’ website is PrimeSeafood.com.

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Why sablefish? Why not get salmon? Well, salmon weigh 10-12 pounds each, and sable are around 7 pounds. At $10-$12 a pound, it’s not an insignificant investment. And then there’s the fact that good wild salmon in manageable pieces is possible to find, albeit expensive. Sablefish is highly perishable. It’s hard to find at any price. And it’s really, really delicious.

Wow. If you need folks to go in with you next time, just say the word.

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The girls were chattering away as I served up the food and were waiting for me to sit down and join them. When I did, everyone dug in and suddenly there was complete silence at the table. I took a bite of the fish and looked around. Everyone was dumbstruck. I heard a few quiet “wow’s”. Jonathan looked at me and said; “This is the best piece of fish I’ve ever eaten in my life.”

....The girls took up their chattering again, but every one of them ate every bite on their plates. Jonathan and I quietly savored our portions, knowing that from now on, the girls at our table would be comparing every piece of fish they eat with the one they were enjoying tonight. It was that good.

Zora,

This brought tears to my eyes. How very lovely. Thanks for the beautiful recap. What a great moment.

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Zora,

This brought tears to my eyes. How very lovely. Thanks for the beautiful recap. What a great moment.

Ditto for me. Tears. Thanks, Zora.

On the subject of scaling fish: I think it was Jacques Pépin on one of his shows who demonstrated scaling fish inside a clear plastic bag, which keeps the scales from getting all over your kitchen. I've tried it and it works very well.

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On the subject of scaling fish: I think it was Jacques Pépin on one of his shows who demonstrated scaling fish inside a clear plastic bag, which keeps the scales from getting all over your kitchen. I've tried it and it works very well.

I'll remember this for the next time I have to scale a fish. Thanks.

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