Despite my mother's incredible culinary skills, I was a very picky eater growing up. I refused to eat all green vegetables and I turned up my nose at any sort of fish besides catfish, even though my mother served fish on an almost daily basis. At some point in college, I made a conscious decision to try and eat fish. I actually took a series of seafood cooking classes at Homechef (which I believe is now closed, but was a store that sold kitchenwares and provided cooking lessons, like Sur La Table) to try and get the ball rolling. I still remember the very first time I ordered fish in a restaurant. It was June 2000, and we were celebrating my law school graduation at Maison Robert in Boston (also now closed). I remember my mother's jaw literally dropping after I ordered, as she exclaimed with unrestrained joy, "You ordered fish! I'm so proud of you!"
So fast forward a few years, and I have turned around 180 degrees. I regularly order fish in restaurants and I have even moved from vegetarian sushi to spicy tuna rolls. But I firmly believe that the most delicious fish in the world can be found in my mother's kitchen. She makes a Chilean sea bass that is to die for.
Now, I feel incredibly guilty about eating Chilean sea bass. A few years ago I read the book Hooked by G. Bruce Knecht. It's positively riveting, and I highly recommend it to anyone. Knecht describes the rise of what we now know as Chilean sea bass from its humble roots as the undesireable and inexpensive Patagonian toothfish, to one of the most popular and desired ingredients in American cuisine. This dramatic change and the high demand for the buttery and mild fish has caused the species to be fished to the brink of extinction in a very short period of time. Knecht's book alternates this background information with the incredible true story of an Australian patrol boat's 4,000-mile pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel halfway around Antarctica through treacherous conditions.
After I read Hooked, I implored my mother to stop buying and serving Chilean sea bass, even though her preparation is incredibly delicious. But then I read an article in the New York Times reporting that Whole Foods, which had stopped selling the fish altogether in the late 90s due to concerns of overfishing, was going to start selling Chilean sea bass again, only stocking fish from a sustainable fishery in the South Atlantic. I eagerly encouraged my mother to buy her Chilean sea bass from Whole Foods so that I could eat it without guilt.
Last week when I was home, my mother made her yummy Chilean sea bass and I asked her to explain the recipe to me. To my surprise, she brought out a Japanese cookbook (as I have mentioned before, my mother almost never uses cookbooks) and flipped it open to the recipe, "Broiled Fish Pickled In Miso." My mother has adapted the details somewhat, but the essence of her recipe is this. Take a washed Chilean sea bass fillet. Wrap it in a single layer of cheesecloth. Make a paste of miso, rice wine, and sugar. Coat the cheesecloth-wrapped fish in the paste. Put the coated fish in a plastic bag and let it marinate in the refrigerator for a day or two. Take out the fish and remove the cheesecloth. Put the fish under the broiler until it's done. The finished dish is moist, flavorful, sweet, and tastes as if the whole thing has been dipped in butter. I was puzzled as to the use of the cheesecloth, but my mother explained that the marinade passes through the cheesecloth, but then you can take off the cloth and you are left with a completely clean and attractive piece of fish.
I'm glad that they are starting to develop sustainable farmed populations of Chilean sea bass. Because my mom's fish is so tasty that it's enough to test the willpower of even the most resolute!