Rare Treat

Karl Wells
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Misnamed Chilean sea bass for marketing reasons, once the Patagonian toothfish hits the palate, PR spin becomes unnecessary

I had wanted to taste Patagonian toothfish (a.k.a. Chilean sea bass) ever since reading "Garlic and Sapphires" by Ruth Reichl. The book is Reichl's account of her years as restaurant critic for The New York Times. When writing about Chilean sea bass, a popular item on New York menus, she revealed that the correct name for the fish is Patagonian toothfish. Apparently, someone decided that that name wouldn't sell. (Ya think?) So, they changed it to Chilean sea bass. Yes, Chilean sea bass sounds more palatable than toothfish; but, the truth is, Patagonian toothfish isn't even distantly related to sea basses. Anyway, I became fascinated with this fish and subsequently thrilled when it showed up on the purchase list of a fish club I'd joined.

I had wanted to taste Patagonian toothfish (a.k.a. Chilean sea bass) ever since reading "Garlic and Sapphires" by Ruth Reichl. The book is Reichl's account of her years as restaurant critic for The New York Times. When writing about Chilean sea bass, a popular item on New York menus, she revealed that the correct name for the fish is Patagonian toothfish. Apparently, someone decided that that name wouldn't sell. (Ya think?) So, they changed it to Chilean sea bass. Yes, Chilean sea bass sounds more palatable than toothfish; but, the truth is, Patagonian toothfish isn't even distantly related to sea basses. Anyway, I became fascinated with this fish and subsequently thrilled when it showed up on the purchase list of a fish club I'd joined.

The Seafood Shop Fish Club was organised by the shop's Patrick Fitzgerald and Tom Beckett, of Beckett on Wine. Every month, club members have an opportunity to buy three or more different species of seafood, usually not available in this province. (Most recently the offering included: fresh sea scallops, sushi-grade tuna and frozen Patagonian toothfish fillets.) It's too expensive to import these products for one or two people, but with a club of 120 members, it's feasible.

At $18.75 per pound, Patagonian toothfish isn't a fish you take chances with when cooking. Once I'd taken possession of my four precious fillets, I hurried home and started thumbing through cookbooks to find the perfect recipe. I also scanned the Internet. That's when my heart sank - several floors. In front of me was the blaring (it seemed blaring at the time) headline: "Al Gore serves up endangered fish at daughter's party." Of course, it was Patagonian toothfish. According to the story, last July the Gores served up the fish at one of their daughter's wedding parties in Beverly Hills. The blogger I was reading was relishing the idea of "eco-warrior" and former vice-president Gore getting caught out in such fashion.

Off to Dorchester

Well, I panicked. How could I have been so stupid? I hunkered down, waiting for Border Services agents to track me down and ship me off to Dorchester. I felt like Matthew Broderick's character, Clark Kellogg, in "The Freshman," when he finds out he has "unwittingly" been illegally transporting an endangered exotic species (the Komodo dragon) to a secretive gourmet club. The club's millionaire members dine on the world's most endangered species at $350,000 a plate. "You mean they're going to eat them!" Clark screams when told who he's actually working for. My own self-rebuke continued.

"You fool," I said to myself, "What in God's name have you done!"

Eventually I calmed down and decided to contact the person who had gotten me into this mess in the first place, the ringlead ... er ... I mean, Tom Beckett, who basically did the equivalent of slapping me in my hysterical face. His words were like a sedative to me.

"The issue of endangered Patagonian toothfish is still highlighted on the Internet, but the information is now about five years out of date. In addition to the reputation of the fish wholesaler, Canadian Border Services is resolute in ensuring Canada does not contribute to species endangerment by importing such species. All reputable companies using Chilean sea bass buy from certified harvesters under close supervision. Harvesting is supervised by the Conference for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources."

Peace

Finally, I could enjoy my fillets in peace, and in Provence. Well, not really, but sensible Tom had given me a recipe for Poisson Provencal. The recipe works for any firm white fish. It sounded just the ticket for my dinner party, featuring Patagonian toothfish!

The recipe called for the usual ingredients of a Provencal style dish: tomatoes, olive oil, zucchini, eggplant, wine and thyme. Essentially the vegetables are slowly cooked together to allow for flavour development and then served over the toothfish fillets that have been poached in a bath of white wine.

Patagonian toothfish (dissostichus eleginoides) are found in the cold, sub-Antarctic regions. They contain more fat than wild salmon and can be quite large. An adult sometimes reaches 200 kilograms or more and measures 2.3 metres. They feed on other fish and creatures like squid and prawns. The Patagonian toothfish can live for 50 years.

It didn't take long for me to pull the recipe together. I did handle the toothfish very carefully though. It's a great fish for grilling because of its firmness and fat content but I was very happy with the gentle poaching/steaming method I used. When done, I gingerly removed each fillet from the poaching liquid and placed a portion of the ratatouille-like vegetable mixture around and over them. It was superbly fragrant.

Patagonian toothfish is the most beautiful seafood I have ever eaten. It is buttery in flavour, firm, yet gloriously tender and pulls apart with only the slightest effort. The flesh is somewhat like the best scallop. While I was savouring a mouthful (like a fine wine) the expression "food of the gods" came to mind. "Yes," I thought, "This is food of the gods and I'm very privileged to be tasting it."

To learn more about the Seafood Shop Fish Club please contact Tom Beckett at tom.beckett@nl.rogers.com.




RECIPE

Poisson Provencal
Serves 4
Ingredients:
2 small zucchini (sliced into half inch rounds)
1 small red onion (halved and thinly sliced)
6 tomatoes - plum style (chopped)
2 green peppers (halved and seeded)
1 small eggplant (halved)
1 tbsp. chopped fresh thyme
1 tbsp. chopped fresh dill
4 six-ounce fillets of any firm fleshed white fish (preferably thick fillets)
2 cups of dry white wine (i.e. sauvignon blanc)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Method:
Preheat oven to 400 F. In a bowl, generously oil halved peppers and eggplant. Place them on a cookie sheet. Roast in preheated oven for 15 minutes. Remove from oven. Chop peppers and eggplant into bite-sized pieces.
In a large frying pan, sautÉ zucchini and onion in olive oil over med/high heat until browned and softened. Add chopped eggplants and peppers, as well as tomatoes and herbs. Stir to combine. Continue to cook while you season both sides of the raw fish with salt and pepper.
Remove cooked vegetables to another frying pan and keep hot. Next, deglaze the original pan with white wine. (This means get the wine bubbling and at the same time use a spatula to scrape the bottom and sides of the pan to get off any bits of browned vegetable that might be clinging. It will create a flavourful medium in which to cook your fish.)
Bring wine mixture to a simmer. Add seasoned fish fillets. Spoon some of the hot vegetables over each of the fillets. Cover pan tightly with heavy tin foil and remove from heat. The fish will cook with the heat trapped inside the covered pan.
After 10 to 12 minutes (or 10 minutes per inch of thickness of fish) remove foil and place fillets on warm plates. Augment each fillet with more vegetables from the second pan. Serve. (You may want to cook some rice to go with it.)

Organizations: Seafood Shop Fish Club, New York Times, Komodo Canadian Border Services Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources

Geographic location: New York, Dorchester, Beverly Hills Canada Provence

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