Stuffed Smoked Sablefish

Pacific Northwest ingredients, Asian theme

Pristine, scenic Vancouver can be forgiven for thinking that it offers the best of the Northwest—Seattle without the grunge and the caffeine buzz. The cuisine that has evolved there in recent decades is similar to Seattle's, with beautifully fresh fish, mushrooms, and berries as the stars, supported by Asian condiments and techniques.

For example, at his celebrated sushi bar and restaurant Hidekazu Tojo puts into the best sushi I've ever tasted ingredients closely associated with both the Northwest and Japan: say, chilled avocado, zucchini, and mango and a single hot tempura shrimp wrapped in a thin slice of cucumber. His other dishes are just as original.

On a recent visit to Vancouver, I procured a recipe that demonstrates Tojo's ability to transform a few northwestern ingredients into a strikingly Asian-themed dish. It starts with sablefish, also called black cod, which is as richly flavored as (and even oilier than) Pacific salmon (it is unrelated to cod, and is found only in the Pacific). Jews have long known the lush glories of smoked sablefish, the Beluga of the deli counter, whose presence at a buffet denotes a milestone event.

I got the recipe from Nathan Fong, an indefatigable food stylist and cooking teacher who patiently guided me around the markets and various Chinatown neighborhoods (there are four) of Vancouver. "I eat Japanese as often as Chinese," Fong, the third generation of his Cantonese family to be in the food business, told me, reflecting the city's free mixing of Asian influences. "And Tojo's presentations are some of the most brilliant I've ever seen."

The dish is elegant in conception: marinated mushrooms and asparagus along with fresh mango slices are stuffed into smoked fillets and heated just until the flavors meld.

To serve two people generously or four as a first course, you'll need four quarter-pound fillets of smoked sablefish. If your fishmonger carries sablefish, ask for the fillets to be as close to square as possible. You can mail-order smoked sablefish from many sources, including Port Chatham, a highly regarded Seattle fish smoker, at Taste the fillets, and if they seem excessively salty, rinse them carefully in cold water before using.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"Matsutake Fever" (January 10, 2001)
"Mushrooms—specifically, the large creamy-white to bronze-colored mushrooms called matsutakes—are in fact The Zoo's raison d'être." By Lawrence Millman

Few fresh mushrooms have the flavor of the matsutake (also called pine mushroom), a variety so prized in Japan that, like numerous other delicacies there, it has generated a near cult. Its texture is chewy, its flavor delicate, perfumed, and distinctive. Northwestern mushroom hunters swap fish stories about the huge matsutake they have come upon; commercial hunters in the Northwest are said to carry guns.

Dried matsutake are available, but they're not as good for eating and cooking as dried shiitake—the best substitute here for fresh matsutake (the dried ones are closer in flavor and texture to fresh matsutake). Fong points out that for safety it is important to cook dried mushrooms as thoroughly as you would fresh ones; simply soaking and reconstituting them can leave pathogens or larvae intact. Jack Czarnecki, a leading American writer of mushroom guides and cookbooks (A Cook's Book of Mushrooms is the easiest to use), calls overnight soaking "cruel and unusual punishment." He recommends placing dried mushrooms in water to cover, bringing them to a raging boil, and then simmering them over medium heat for about twenty minutes.

Assuming that no foraging friend has arrived with a large fresh matsutake, place one large (about two inches in diameter) or two medium dried shiitake caps in a small saucepan with a half cup of water and bring to a hard boil. Simmer over medium heat for ten to fifteen minutes while you prepare the other stuffing ingredients and the marinade. Trim four medium asparagus stalks, slice them in half lengthwise, and cut them into pieces two inches long. Peel one just-ripe medium mango and slice it into pieces roughly two inches long and a half inch thick.

For the marinade, mix in a saucepan one tablespoon of soy sauce, one tablespoon of mirin (sweet rice wine; you can substitute sherry), and a quarter cup of chicken stock or, preferably, dashi, the bonito broth that is the base of many Japanese soups and stocks. (My preferred writer on Japanese cooking is Elizabeth Andoh.) Drain the mushrooms and slice them into ribbons an eighth of an inch thick. Add the sliced mushrooms to the marinade and cook gently for two to three minutes. Lift out the mushrooms and reserve. Simmer the asparagus pieces for two or three minutes in the same hot marinade and remove them.

Have ready four sheets of parchment paper or foil, nine or ten inches square, and a baking sheet. Parchment paper is the ideal wrapping, because some of the liquid evaporates, and flavors are concentrated as a result; foil is a fine second best. Preheat the oven to 425° and set a rack in the middle.

Cut each fillet nearly in half. Open a cut fillet so that it lies flat. Place a quarter each of the mushrooms and asparagus, and two or three mango slices on the open fillet, roughly parallel with the closed side. Close the fillet, pushing back in any bits of stuffing that may fall out. The smoked fish is fragile, and the stuffed fillets will be messy. Don't worry. Place each fillet in the center of one of the sheets and tightly fold the paper or foil around it, using the wrapping to encourage a cylindrical shape. Fold each end as if for a gift and tuck the excess paper or foil beneath the log. Place the closed packets on the baking sheet and bake for ten minutes.

This dish needs no sauce or garnish, not even Fong's suggested lime slices. The full flavors speak for themselves.