Almost sushi: Herb-crusted Hawaiian yellowtail

by Terry B on January 23, 2008

Coriander-crusted Hawaiian yellowtail fillet, barely sautéed and served with wasabi mashed potatoes and a mixed green salad. Recipes below.

A quick note: The two fish recipes in this post call for a specific type of fish. They can also be made with others—I’ll mention some possible substitutes with the recipes. The wasabi mashed potato recipe doesn’t call for fish at all.

I was recently invited by Kona Blue Water Farms to sample some of their sushi-grade Kona Kampachi. This is their name for their own sustainably farmed Hawaiian yellowtail or Almaco Jack, a crisper textured cousin to the Japanese hamachi popular in sashimi and sushi.

Doing a little research, I discovered these 5- to 6-pounders aren’t just your typical farm-raised fish; as CNNMoney.com’s Business 2.0 puts it, “Hawaii startup Kona Blue is pioneering deepwater aquaculture to farm ocean fish and take the pressure off wild species.” The Seattle Post provides further details, explaining that they do this by growing the fish “in large, space-age cages submerged in 200 feet of ocean and by controlling what the fish eat. The fish are given no antibiotics or medications, just a pellet feed containing fish meal, fish oil and wheat. The fish meal and oil come from sustainable wild fisheries and the wheat comes from an organic source.” Healthwise, Kona Kamachi is rich in Omega-3 fish oils, and independent testing showed “no detectable” levels of PCBs or mercury.

Taking pressure off wild species is a particularly timely topic. Just the other day, The New York Times ran an editorial entitled “Until All the Fish Are Gone” about “the disastrous environmental, economic and human consequences of often illegal industrial fishing.”

Next, I took a look at who’s selling and cooking Kona Kampachi. The answer was restaurants and seafood stores in nearly 30 states across the country. Here in Chicago, respected restaurants Blackbird, Meritage Café & Wine Bar and Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo are among the dozens who serve it. And leading purveyors like Dirk’s Fish & Gourmet Shop and Burhop’s Seafood carry it for home cooks.

All of the above was enough for me. Yes, I wanted to try it. In the interest of full disclosure, Kona Blue generously sent me a, well, generous sample for free. I warned them I wasn’t afraid to bite the hand that fed me—if the fish was less than wonderful, I would say so. They didn’t seem worried. And as it turns out, they had no reason to be.

A big box arrived at my office Friday. When we got home, I immediately tore it open. Inside, I found two fresh fillets, each a little more than 1-1/4 pounds, carefully wrapped and nestled in multiple ice packs. When I say fresh, I’m talking the kind of fresh we don’t take for granted in the Midwest, even in a big city like Chicago. The smell was absolutely clean, with just the wonderful briny hint of the ocean that only the freshest saltwater seafood can deliver.

Also in the interest of full disclosure, the first thing we did was slice the little tapered end off one of the fillets and devour it immediately. This was supposedly sushi-grade fish—that demanded testing, didn’t it? Marion sliced it into thin little pieces, and we had some lazy man’s sashimi. Just the fish and a little soy sauce. And soon we were skipping the soy sauce. It was that fresh, that good, satisfyingly meaty.

Now then, what to do with the rest of the fish? At a party, I had discussed our impending bounty—okay, maybe I bragged a little—with our friend Karen. I said that since it was sushi-grade, one thing I wanted to try was based on a tuna recipe long ago read but never tried, in which the fish was barely cooked on one side only and served cooked side up. Karen had just seen Ming Tsai do something similar with Japanese hamachi on his TV show Simply Ming. Since my half-remembered tuna recipe was long gone, this sounded like a great place to start.

The Ming recipe is simplicity itself. Fish fillets seasoned only with salt and pepper and then coated with a crust of coarsely ground coriander seeds and seared for a mere 30 seconds per side. I’d already rejected various recipes with soy sauce or orange juice or countless other ingredients that sounded delicious but might mask the flavor of the fish itself. But this sounded like it would let the fish shine through, with the citrusy brightness of the coriander as just a flavor note.

Ming serves his version of this dish sliced over a shaved fennel salad. I was just here for the fish. So I served my fillets whole, along with a simple salad and wasabi mashed potatoes. You’ll find the recipe below, along with one for the potatoes. You’ll also find more of a description than a recipe for the even simpler preparation I served the next night.

Coriander-Crusted Hawaiian Yellowtail
Serves 4

4 four-ounce pieces of Hawaiian Yellowtail, skin off [you could also use Japanese hamachi or ahi tuna]
3 tablespoons coriander seeds, coarsely ground
canola oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place the fillets on a plate and let them come to room temperature [less than half an hour; it's just that the cooking time is so short, you don't want them to be cold inside when done]. Grind coriander seeds briefly in a spice grinder or small food processor. Place it in a pie plate. Season the fillets with salt and pepper and press both sides of each fillet into coriander. Heat a sauté pan over high heat and add enough canola oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. Sear the fillets on both sides, about 1 minute on the first and 30 seconds on the second. Transfer to plates and serve immediately.

Kitchen Notes

A quick note about bones. Each fillet had a row of evenly spaced small bones along a seam. They pulled out easily once the fish was cooked, and there were only maybe a half dozen or so in each 4-ounce portion. They also weren’t those maddeningly fine bones you sometimes encounter in fish and were easily avoided. To me, this is all a non-issue, but I thought I should mention it.

Wasabi Mashed Potatoes
Serves 6

Wasabi powder, the horseradish kick of the condiment often served with sushi, adds a little heat and a flavorful zing to these potatoes. It’s available in Asian markets and some supermarkets.

3 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks [I always use Yukon Gold, but russets would also work]
3/4 cup buttermilk [you can also use milk]
1 tablespoon wasabi powder
1/4 cup butter [1/2 stick]
salt to taste

Put potatoes in a large pot and cover by 1 inch with cold water. Season with salt and bring to a boil. Cook until just tender, about 10 – 15 minutes. Meanwhile whisk wasabi powder into buttermilk. Drain cooked potatoes and return to pot. Heat over a low flame for just a minute or so to evaporate excess moisture.

Add butter and buttermilk/wasabi powder mixture to potatoes and mash thoroughly with a hand masher. If potatoes are too thick or dry, add more milk, just a tablespoon or so at a time—you don’t want them mushy. Season to taste with salt.

Potatoes can be made an hour or more ahead. Cover and keep at room temperature. Rewarm before serving over low heat, stirring frequently.

For night two, an even simpler fish treatment

When fish is really fresh, really good, simple preparation is best. The next night, I seasoned two 4-ounce fillets with nothing more than salt and pepper. I sautéed them in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat in a mix of canola oil and butter [enough to coat the bottom of the pan] about 3 minutes or so per side, until just cooked through. Done. If anything, I liked this even better than the coriander-crusted version from the previous night [of course that could be partly because, since I didn't photograph it, it was still warm while I was eating it]. This simple technique can be applied to many kinds of really fresh fish, and with the likes of salmon fillets or tuna steaks, a little rare on the inside is perfect.

We still had a little of this delicious fresh fish left. Next week, we’ll tell you what Marion did with it.

Also this week in Blue Kitchen, 1/23/2008

Ditching the D word. Weight Watchers and packaged goods giant Kraft are abandoning “diet” for “living.” If they really mean it, this could be good. Read more at WTF? Random food for thought.

Is it jazz? Is it hip-hop? Is it rap? “Yes.” When hip-hop producers Us3 invade Blue Note’s vintage jazz vaults with an army of rappers, it’s a victory for everyone. See what I mean, at What’s on the kitchen boombox?

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Toni January 23, 2008 at 7:28 am

I love the fact that people just send you fresh fish! It’s so….second rate… to have to buy the stuff! ;-) But seriously, I agree with you when it comes to simplicity being the best way to show off freshness. It’s what I’ve always loved about eating in Italy – the freshest ingredients cooked simply. (Not buried under tomato sauce!!!)

Now, about those wasabi mashed potatoes………Ahhhhhh!!!!! They are definitely due for a spin through my kitchen!

Sylvia January 23, 2008 at 12:37 pm

I just discover your blog and was love at first read. You write very well. I was reading your post about chimichurri and was well done and very explained.

Patricia Scarpin January 23, 2008 at 1:51 pm

I would never have thought of fresh fish arriving in a box like that, Terry!

And the food… I’m a fish lover and would gladly have seconds. Maybe even thirds… My mom would blush with my bad manners.. :)

Christine January 23, 2008 at 4:42 pm

This looks delicious! And you’ve sold me – I can’t wait to check out Whole Foods and pick some up for myself.

Jennifer Hess January 23, 2008 at 5:27 pm

Oh, YUM. You know I love seafood, and I’m always on the lookout for good tasting, sustainable choices. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for this fish!

Carolyn January 23, 2008 at 6:16 pm

Imagine a world without an abundance of fresh seafood! Loved the recipe, loved the writing, and especially was delighted to see a picture of Ming Tsai. His show is my favorite cooking show.

Lydia January 23, 2008 at 7:03 pm

I’ve heard good things about this fish, and have read the posts of others who received it by mail. Nice to know there is a purveyor who delivers on what is promised. It certainly seems that you and Marion have had some great meals!

Marie January 23, 2008 at 7:46 pm

I hope one day soon to taste this lovely fish! Yours looks so delicious, and the potatoes, well what can I say? but Mmmmmm

katie January 23, 2008 at 8:32 pm

Oh. My. God!
Excuse me, while I mop up the drool! I am soooo jealous! I’m just not going to say anything else…
(We don’t get good tuna here…)

Terry B January 23, 2008 at 9:17 pm

Toni—The potatoes are really nice, the effect of the wasabi subtle. None of the sinus-opening power of the unadulterated stuff when you’re eating sushi, just a lively taste and the slightest touch of heat.

Sylvia—Thank you! A quick look at the beautiful photos on your multi-lingual blog tells me I’ll be back for more.

Patricia—You always make me smile with your comments. Most mothers constantly worry about getting their kids to eat. I’m sure your mother would be proud of your plate-cleaning skills.

Christine—Let me know what you think!

Jennifer—The sustainability of this fish is one of the things that really impressed me. Interestingly in the wild it’s not a marketable fish—problems with parasites. But by controlling its environment, Kona Blue has created something not only marketable and sustainable, but truly delicious.

Carolyn—Then stay tuned next week. Marion adapted another Ming Tsai recipe when she cooked the last of this fish.

Lydia—Best of all, it’s available in a growing list of stores nationwide, making it all the more accessible.

Marie—We’re big potato fans at our house. When older daughter Claire showed little interest in them, we thought there’d been some mix-up at the hospital where she was born!

Katie—Turn about fair play for all the amazing cheeses you can only get in France, I say!

holybasil January 23, 2008 at 11:48 pm

I am envious of your fabulous fish. I always go the sesame-crust route for fish – a lot of bang for your buck, I think, both in flavor and presentation. I agree that simple is really best and like you, I’ve found salt and pepper are all that’s needed sometimes. – Christine

Anticiplate January 26, 2008 at 11:54 pm

This dish looks fabulous! I have always wanted to cook yellowtail. I also love the combination of coriander crust with the wasabi mashed potatoes. It looks like a must try!

Terry B January 27, 2008 at 5:03 am

Christine—Sesame seeds are big here too, as well as a little sesame oil.

Ronnie [Out of My Head]—What an alarming story about tuna sushi in restaurants. I know it focused on New York restaurants, but tuna is tuna.

AnticiPlate—Welcome to Blue Kitchen! I’m looking forward to exploring your blog more.

T.W. Barritt January 27, 2008 at 10:09 pm

I have had mixed success making fish at home, but finally managed salmon perfect every time. This sounds like it has an amazing flavor, and so simple to prepare. These days, I’m just getting junk mail …

Helmut January 28, 2008 at 10:38 am

A great story about Kona Farms and their generous gift to you. I especially like the concept of taking the pressure off wild species. How many so abundant resources have been destroyed by ruthless over use.

Terry B January 28, 2008 at 5:03 pm

T.W.—With great ingredients, simple is best. I’ll often decide whether or not to make a recipe based on the length of the ingredient list. I mean, I love to cook, but so many things end up sounding too much like work to me.

Helmut—Thanks for stopping by! We really do have to think about the pressure we’re putting on the world as a whole, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but for our own survival.

monkeybrainsnsquidkibbles February 4, 2008 at 5:58 pm

It’s so refreshing to see fish prepared rare rather than overcooked. I think the landlockedness of my little city perpetuates an unhealthy obsession with overcooking fishies for fear of bacterias they may breed making the long trip here and the result is akin to fish-flavoured bubble gum. Luckily fresh fish can be obtained when one is prepared to ask the right questions of local grocers and restauranteurs.

Helen Rennie March 27, 2008 at 2:10 pm

Hi Terry,

Man, I am jealous! In a good way :) I am seriously behind on my blog reading (as you can see since I am commenting on a January post). And look what I found — your post about kampachi. I only saw it in a fish market in Boston once and it was simply spectacular. I miss that fish terribly… Maybe I should splurge and order it from Kona sometimes. I wonder if it’s crazy to ask for a fish for my birthday?

So glad you enjoyed it!

Cheers,
-Helen

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