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Chilean Sea Bass: Too Good to Last?
Had any Patagonian toothfish lately?
Chances are most people would say no. But call it by its common market name, Chilean
sea bass, and the answer might be different.
Chilean sea bass (Dissostichus eleginoides), a large, vaguely cod-shaped fish found in cold, deep waters of the southern hemisphere, has been one of the most phenomenally successful introductions of a fish into the North American market in our time. Where this fish was virtually unknown here fifteen years ago, today you can hardly pick up a restaurant menu or shop in a fish market without coming across it.
The reasons for its popularity are clear. Chilean sea bass produces good-sized fillets of white meat with a mild flavor, a pleasantly firm texture, and a high fat content that makes it almost impossible to overcook. It has remained relatively inexpensive, especially in the frozen form, and for much of the year it is also available fresh, by air freight. Despite its common English name, Chilean sea bass is unrelated to the true sea basses (many of which go by the name "grouper") nor to other saltwater basses like striped bass. Instead, it belongs to a family found only in the higher latitudes of the southern hemisphere. The FDA officially insists on Patagonian toothfish as the proper name, but I've never seen it sold that way.
In ecological terms, it's almost identical to the sablefish or "black cod" of the north Pacific. Both are predatory fish of deep, cold waters, and both contain a lot of fat (about 16 percent, more than the fattiest wild salmon), and a lot of that fat is of the omega-3 unsaturated variety, a sort of natural antifreeze. Apart from a slight difference in texture -- Chilean sea bass meat forms larger flakes -- the two species can be used interchangeably in recipes.
With its high fat content, Chilean sea bass is well suited to dry-heat cooking methods such as broiling, grilling, and sauteing. One variation on the last technique that shows up a lot on restaurant menus is searing -- cooking thick cuts in a hot skillet to crust the exterior and finishing them in a hot oven, where they cook by radiant heat as well as conducted heat from the skillet.
As popular and widely available as Chilean sea bass is today, one has to wonder whether the current level of fishing is sustainable. Because this is by all accounts a slow-growing species, the tremendous quantities caught over the last ten years probably include a good share of fish that have been growing for fifty years or more. The fishing fleets of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and other southern nations continue to explore new fishing grounds and turn up more stocks; still, the experience with orange roughy and other "new" fish suggests that at some point there won't be many older, larger fish left.
Even if there is not a major crash in the Chilean sea bass population, I can't help feeling that we are seeing as much of this fish now as we ever will. I imagine that sometime early in the next century, some filmmaker will set a scene of a stylishly dressed man and woman in a restaurant, finishing a meal of Chilean sea bass and both lighting up cigars. I hope the cigars will seem hopelessly dated, a throwback to the late 1990s -- and I fear, so will the choice of fish.
In the meantime, here's a simple recipe to prepare this fish while it's still abundant. If you desire, substitute another saucy melange of vegetables for the pepper mixture.
Seared Chilean Sea Bass with Piperade
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 red bell peppers, or 1 red and 1 yellow, seeded and thinly sliced
1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced crosswise
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3/4 cup peeled, seeded, and chopped tomatoes, with juice
1-1/2 pounds Chilean sea bass fillet, cut into 4 portions
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a skillet or wok over medium-low heat. Add the peppers and onion and cook, stirring, until the peppers begin to wilt but do not brown. Add the garlic, cook until fragrant, and add the tomatoes and a pinch of salt and pepper. Simmer until everything is tender and the flavors are well blended, about 15 minutes. Keep warm.
Meanwhile, remove the fish from the refrigerator, season lightly on both sides with salt and pepper, and let stand a few minutes at room temperature.
Set another skillet (cast iron or heavy aluminum, just large enough to hold the fish) over medium-high heat until a drop of water evaporates instantly on contact; turn on the broiler. Add the remaining oil to the skillet, swirl the pan to coat the bottom, and add the fish. Cook until the bottom is beginning to brown, about 2 minutes, then run the skillet under the broiler without turning the fish. Broil 3 to 4 minutes, turn the browned side up, and continue broiling until a skewer easily slides in and out of the thickest part of the fish, another 2 to 3 minutes depending on thickness. Serve with the browned side up, with the pepper mixture spooned over and around the fish.
Jay Harlow is a Bay Area cookbook publisher and author of ten books including Once Upon a Bagel, The California Seafood cookbook & Beer Cuisine.