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Galchi: Hooni Kim's choice of fish.
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My Favorite Fish

Carolyn Jung - March 2014

Back in the 1960s, Motown Records’ sassy Marve­lettes sang: “There are too many fish in the sea.” Today, sustainably minded chefs know better. But there are still too many seafood species to select for their menus. With that in mind, five chefs reveal which ones they like best.

Trey Foshee, George’s at the Cove, La Jolla, California
“We try to feature as much local seafood as possible. But I’m not in a big cornucopia of seafood down here, contrary to what a lot of people might think. Northern California has more abundance than we do. Seafood is also better in colder waters, and our waters are not that cold.”

Mackerel. “I’m going out on a limb with this one, but I really like it. It’s underutilized and underappreciated. Mackerel is milder than sardine, and we sell a ton of sardines. The mackerel comes in as bycatch, so it’s very inconsistent for us to get it locally. When I put mackerel on as a special, diners ask how strong tasting it is. When I say it’s less strong than sardines, they order it. It’s good lightly cured like seviche, where it’s still medium raw. I dry cure it with salt and sugar or wrap it in kombu, which helps it firm up a little bit. You also can cure it in olive brine and serve it Mediterranean-style with apples, fennel, and olives. We’ll sometimes make a light broth from water, guajillo chiles, tomatillo, cilantro, mint, and parsley that’s blended and strained. Right before serving, we pour it over the raw fish. I also like mackerel broiled, which sounds so 1980s. Crush bread crumbs with zested citrus, coat the fish, and cook it briefly under the salamander to get a nice crust. Sautéing brings out the oiliness of the fish, so you get a stronger flavor. That’s why I prefer to broil it, as it’s a less violent way to cook it.”

Alex Harrell, Sylvain, New Orleans
“Seafood is so available and so fresh and beautiful here that chefs just gravitate to it. It becomes predominant on menus around town. Since everyone is using the same species, in order to stand out, you have to individualize it and put your own spin on preparations.”

Flounder. “It’s my favorite fish to cook and my favorite fish to eat. It’s so mild, so light, and really delicate. It’s not a very fatty or oily fish, so you have to be very careful not to overcook it. Pan-roasting is one of the best ways to cook it, because you want to cook it quickly. Flounder lends itself to a variety of preparations. The fillets are quite thin compared to deeper water species, so all they require is a short period on the stovetop to develop a nice brown crust, then a short time in the oven. You pull the fish when it’s medium, so by the time it reaches the customer, it’s just barely cooked through. The most recent way we’ve cooked the fish is butterflying it and stuffing it with roasted mushrooms, braised leeks, and garlic, then tying it up and roasting it in the oven. We run flounder as often as we can get it. It’s always a big seller for us.”

Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley, Eventide Oyster Co., Portland, Maine
“We try to prepare and present fish simply—the better to capitalize on its freshness. We want to serve fish that tastes clean and of itself. Our menu is inextricably linked to the seasons and to our local waters. Big landmarks on our calendar: the opening of Maine scallop season, Maine shrimp season [cancelled in winter of 2013-14], those weeks in late summer when the swordfish bellies get so fat that the fishmongers call them ‘butterballs,’ and in February when the smelt start running.”

Butterfish. “We love it for its sweet and delicate flesh, and for the fact that we don’t see them regularly. There isn’t a big market for them among fishmongers and restaurants, owing to the fact that they’re so tiny and, consequently, sort of a hassle to butcher. But the fishermen recognize what a jewel of a fish they are, and they take them home to their families. Once in a blue moon, we can get our hands on a dozen or so, and we like to treat them as simply as possible. Attendant to their name, we generally poach them in butter or pan-roast them in foamy butter. In the past, we’ve served the roasted butterfish over cauliflower couscous with radish greens and a bonito emulsion. Most recently, we did a dish with warm sticky rice, butterfish cooked sous-vide, pickled carrots, and a tamarind jam. There’s really something to be said for the sous-vide cookery here. It allows us to preserve the fish’s silvery, iridescent skin.”

Perry Bateman, Mama’s Fish House, Maui, Hawaii
“We list the names of the fishermen who caught the seafood on our menu. We’ve done it since the restaurant opened 41 years ago. We’re proud to know who caught them and from where.’’

Moi (A relative to mullet and also known as Pacific threadfin, these fish are so rare in the wild that they were once reserved exclusively for Hawaiian chiefs. Now, they are being raised in aquaculture farms in Hawaii in limited quantities.) “Moi has a lot of richness, which is a nice way of saying ‘fat.’ It has a delicate, moist, flaky texture. It doesn’t have a pungent flavor, but it has a lot of flavor. It’s like Kona Kampachi—but 10 times better. It remains difficult to get, which makes it even more of a delicacy. I love it as poke: you just season it with Hawaiian salt. It’s just two ingredients and it’s the best thing in the world. I also love it steamed in the classical way with sizzling peanut oil, ginger, and a really good soy sauce. It’s a very versatile fish. It’s difficult to overcook because it’s so rich. It’s also great just seared in olive oil or macadamia oil, then finished with lemon or calamansi. If moi is on the menu, I recommend getting it over anything else because you hardly see it. In fact, the last time we had it in the restaurant was at the beginning of 2013.”

Hooni Kim, Danji & Han­jan, New York City
“Wild fish is a luxury in both flavor and price. It’s what all of us chefs like and prefer to cook if we can afford to do so. Sustainability is a bit more complex in that as much as we love to cook good-tasting food, I believe we need to also be more responsible with the environment as well as our diners’ health. In our times, it’s not enough just to cook good-tasting food. We need to care if the fish, meat, and vegetables we cook are all part of a responsible and sensible cycle of life.”

Galchi (Part of the cutlass fish family. Also known as hairtail, ribbonfish, or beltfish, it is found in the temperate and tropical waters around the world.) “It’s basically an eel-like fish with silver skin and many bones that’s as fishy as they come. I love fish, and for me, the fishier the fish, the more I like it. It’s like how beef lovers like dry-aged beef because it tastes ‘beefier.’ To me, galchi is like the 45-day, dry-aged, bone-in rib eye for a meat lover. It has a lot of bones, so filleting it is impossible. You need to be exceptional with chopsticks to pick the meat from around its many bones. The best way to cook it is simply grilled after it’s been salted. That’s the best way to taste any fish. Another method is to poach it with Korean gochugaru [red pepper powder], onions, radish, and scallions. This is a traditional Korean dish called galchi jorim, and it’s one of my favorites.”

Carolyn Jung, who blogs at FoodGal.com, wrote San Francisco Chef’s Table cookbook.