Monday, December 9, 2013

Saba no Miso ni (Miso Poached Mackerel)

How often would you say you eat hamburgers?

If you're anything like me, the answer is "once a year, max."  There are people out there, no doubt, who eat them weekly.  Maybe even daily.  Most folks probably fall somewhere between the two.  It sort of straddles the line between a special occasion food and the quintessential fast food.

Just so with sushi.  When I lived in Japan I'd have it a few times a year, usually at work parties or when I'd hit up the local literally fast food joint in town.  Here in America, though, you'd think sushi was a nightly phenomenon considering how it's on just about every single Japanese restaurant menu (and features at a growing number of Chinese and Korean restaurants as well).

As you might guess, most of the recipes I miss most from Japan never appear in restaurants over here, even the exceedingly rare ones that are actually owned by Japanese people (so far I've found only one and it's in Porter Square in Cambridge).  Among my favorite recipes that don't make the cut are Japancakes (I'll be sure to introduce you to these soon) and mackerel.

Saba no miso ni (サバの味噌に) is mackerel that's been poached in a kind of miso-based sauce.  Unlike south Asian recipes, which are largely spice-based, Japanese recipes are more sauce/liquid based (think soy sauce and cooking wine).  Poached mackerel is one of those homey, everyday dishes that really take me back.  It's also phenomenally easy to make, so I thought it'd be a nice place to start for Japanese recipes, especially since Japanese cooking has just become the second cuisine to get cultural heritage status.

As usual, scroll to the bottom for a concise recipe.

Mackerel Poached in Miso Sauce

Total real time:  If I count cleaning the fish, it took about an hour.  If yours is already cleaned, then you're looking at about half an hour, 15 minutes of which is simmer time.

Weirdest ingredient:  Mirin.

Mackerel can be a rare find in grocery stores, depending on where you live.  When I see it on sale near me it's almost always an as-is fish that I have to clean myself.  A whole mackerel, if you will.

 Well, not any more.  Now it's full of holes.

I won't cover how to clean the fish yourself.  If you get one from a place that will clean it for you, then by all means do that.  Otherwise I think probably there are a hundreds of better places to learn it than from me.  The one thing I will emphasize, though, is to double-check for pin bones (the small ones that are -- get this -- pin-sized) because you don't really want to be chowing down on those later.  A pair of kitchen tweezers or sanitized needle-nosed pliers will make this job a lot easier.  Even really good markets will miss a few, so be sure not to skip this step.

Now, one of the very first things you will notice is that mackerel is the fishiest-smelling fish that ever fished.  Seriously.  It has a funk to it, even when fresh.  Doc came home three hours after I'd cleaned the fish and he still, er, observed that the kitchen had the tang of a fishmonger on a full moon.  The reason for the fishy funk is that mackerel, like salmon and sardines, is among the oilier kinds of seafood out there.  That oil is the good kind that keeps your coat shiny (when consumed in moderation, like every other thing).

The way to reduce that funk is to briefly swish the fish (teehee) in nearly-boiling water.  What I do is bring a pot of water to a boil and then add a generous splash of cold water to bring the temp down a bit.

It's about to get a really, really hot bath.

Let the fish soak in the hot water for about 10-30 seconds, just long enough for the fleshy bit to start turning white.  You'll notice I've left the skin on.  That's on purpose.  It's delish.

Ding!  Time to take it out and pat it dry.

Don't let it cook all the way.  Less than a minute is enough.

For comparison: the bottom one has been bathed, the top one has not.

I did four filets (each about half a pound) and by the end the water was gross.  Be sure to rinse the pot out well when you're done.


Okay, so now you've got a bunch of (or perhaps just one) filet(s).  Wrap them up in paper towels while you get the sauce ready to roll.

Snug as a... fish.

The sauce is super easy.  What you want are equal parts mirin, sake/rice cooking wine, miso paste, and sugar.  Mirin is one of those things that you might think you'd never find, but surprisingly I find it in the Asian section of almost every grocery store I go into.  It's usually right there with the rice vinegar and cooking sake.  If you have to improvise you could double the sake and add a bit more sugar, but mirin's a really lovely thing to have on hand when cooking fish if you make it often.  It's got a smoothness and viscosity to it that regular sake lacks.

When making miso soup there is a kind of method of dissolving the miso paste carefully into the soup liquid using a ladle and your chopsticks.  We're not making soup here, though, so dumping all these things into the pan is a-ok in my book.  Just whisk them all together and give it a taste.  If it needs salt, add a splash of soy sauce (a little will do, miso's pretty salty on its own).  If it's too sweet, add a splash of rice vinegar.

For four filets I used 3 tablespoons each of mirin, sake, miso paste, and sugar.  You can go light on the sugar if you want, but keep in mind a big part of the purpose of the sugar is to counteract the saltiness of the miso/soy sauce, so just taste it as you go and add sugar gradually.

Left to right: ginger paste, mirin, rice vinegar, soy sauce, sake (aka rice cooking wine).

Bring it up to a light boil, then turn it down to a simmer.  At this point, if fishy tastes/smells really bother you you can add ginger (in slices or in a paste), garlic (likewise), and/or a few sprigs of green onion.  These are entirely optional ways to help de-fishy your dish.

When it's all whisked up and simmering it's time to add your mackerel filets.  

Ready, captain!

I didn't have whole green onions on hand, so that's what that green bottle to the left of middle is up there.  Handy as heck, let me tell you.

Before putting your fish in the sauce, score a little X into the skin.  This helps the sauce permeate the whole filet.  Plus it looks awesome.

X marks my dinner.

Go ahead and place the fish in the simmering sauce.  Now, most recipes I've seen talk about pressing the fish into the sauce with a lid for 15 minutes or using tinfoil to jury-rig one.  I don't like doing extra dishes, nor do I like wasting tinfoil, so I just flip the filet after about 7-8 minutes.

Notice the depth.  It doesn't need to be covered, hence flipping halfway.

When it's done the flesh will be flakey and the skin will have lost its sheen.


How easy is that?  About 1/3 of the filet was more than plenty for my dinner.  

I served it over Japanese rice (the sticky kind used in sushi) topped with a splash of the miso poaching sauce from the skillet.  Playing alongside are soup and veggies.  Pretty standard everyday dinner.  Yummo!

How average!

Up next:  yellow lentils (basic dal).  

Quick Reference Recipe

  1. Carefully check a cleaned filet of mackerel for pin bones, removing any with kitchen tweezers or a sanitized pair of needle-nose pliers.
  2. Briefly swish the mackerel filet in water that is just below boiling in temperature.  Remove fish after the flesh just begins to turn white, less than one minute total.
  3. Dry the filet and wrap in a paper towel while preparing the miso sauce.
  4. In a small skillet on medium-high heat,  mix equal parts mirin, sake, and miso paste (typically around 1-3 tablespoons of each, depending on depth of skillet and number of filets).  Add sugar to taste; suggested amount is roughly equal to mirin/sake/miso.
  5. Taste the sauce, adding soy sauce if more salt is needed and rice vinegar if too sweet.
  6. Add a few slices of ginger, a clove of garlic, or a few sprigs of green onion if desired.
  7. When sauce is boiling, reduce to a simmer and add mackerel, skin side up.  Score skin with an X.
  8. Periodically spoon sauce over the skin.  After 8 minutes, flip the fish over carefully.
  9. Simmer for an additional 7-8 minutes or until thoroughly cooked.
  10. Repeat with any remaining filets.

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