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Cooking Sablefish

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Sablefish fillets

Sablefish fillets

Hank Shaw

Silky and abundant, sablefish are a hidden treat:

Sablefish are best known as "smoked sable" in New York delis, or "smoked black cod" in the Pacific Northwest. In California, they are known most often as "butterfish." The reason is simple: Few fish are as silky rich in omega-3 laden fats as the sablefish, or black cod.

This deep-dwelling predator is one of only two fish in its genus; the other is the skillfish. They live on the ocean floor and have been found at depths of more than mile below the surface. Its skin is charcoal gray and the fish itself doesn't look like much. But this fish is like a diamond ring in a plain brown wrapper.

Sablefish live only in the North Pacific; most are caught in the Bering Sea. Thankfully, they are abundant and, because sable's taste and appearance -- if not texture -- are very similar to Chilean seabass, sable is an environmentally superior choice to that seabass, which is threatened in some fisheries.

In the kitchen, sablefish offer a striking yin-yang appearance -- creamy white flesh juxtaposed against black skin.

One key preparation note: This fish has large pin bones, which are curved little bones that run along the fish's centerline. They need to be removed before you go any further. Do this with a pair of needle-nosed pliers.

Sable is extremely versatile. Its fat content make it a prime candidate for smoking; this also makes it forgiving to the novice cook. The fat acts as a buffer against overcooking. But sablefish shines in other ways, too:

  • As sushi, or crudo. Like the fatty toro tuna or salmon belly at sushi restaurants? You will love sablefish raw. It is also luxurious dressed at the table with a splash of Meyer lemon and sea salt. Don't use sablefish for ceviche, however -- that dish goes best with lean fish.
  • On the grill. Again, the fat is a savior here. It lets you slap a sable fillet on a hot grill without worrying too much about it turing into fish jerky if you look away for too long. But it's fine texture means you should use a cage or at least have the grill well oiled.
  • Pan roasted. Just a simple saute lets you savor the depth of sablefish, which offers a richer mouthfeel and longer finish than a lean fish does.
  • Confit. Yes, poached slowly in olive or some other kind of oil. Think you like slow, oil-poached tuna? You will love sablefish.

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