This is one of those dishes that cost a fortune at Japanese restaurants, but it’s fairly inexpensive and exceptionally easy to make at home (I’m talking impress-your-friends-and-family-weeknight-entrée easy). You’ll need to go to a Japanese market for some of the ingredients, and the fish must marinate 24 hours, so plan accordingly.
Any firm fish (salmon, sea bass, halibut) will work, but I like to use the traditional black cod (also known as sablefish and butterfish). Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch rates wild-caught black cod from Alaska and British Columbia as a “Best Choice” for sustainability because it’s plentiful and the fisheries use pots and longlines; California, Oregon and Washington wild-caught black cod ranks as a secondary “Good Alternative” choice because, though the fish is plentiful, the bottom trawls used by West Coast fisheries cause habitat damage and result in
bycatch of vulnerable species like rockfish.
The traditional recipe uses refined white sugar, but I substitute agave nectar, a natural sweetener from the agave plant that is now readily available at most supermarkets. You can also use honey. Because the fish is naturally buttery, and the marinade adds even more richness, I like to serve the filets over a simple bed of sautéed spinach, but you can also serve with rice.
The more complicated recipe (made famous by chef Nobu Matsuhisa at his flagship Nobu restaurant in New York) calls for the marinade to be flambéed and cooked for 45 minutes in a double boiler, but having tried both, I think my simplified version, which is grilled or pan roasted and then finished in the oven, is a terrific, tasty alternative for busy home cooks.
MISO-MARINATED BLACK COD
4 black cod filets
¼ cup sake (Japanese dry rice wine)
¼ cup mirin (Japanese sweet rice cooking wine)
4 tablespoons white miso paste (Note: This recipe only works with white miso.)
5 tablespoons sugar, agave nectar or honey
Combine marinade ingredients in a small mixing bowl and whisk until smooth (you can also use an immersion blender). Pat the fish filets dry with paper towels and place them single-layer in a glass container that has a tight-fitting lid. Pour the marinade over the fish, coating each filet evenly. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. When the oven is almost ready, heat an indoor or outdoor grill (or a heavy nonstick skillet on the stovetop) to medium-high. Wipe (do not rinse off) excess marinade from filets with your fingers and place them flesh-side down on the grill or in the skillet. Cook for a few minutes, until the marinade caramelizes and the fish develops a golden-brown crust. Turn the filets and cook skin-side down for 30 seconds.
Transfer fish to a baking pan flesh-side up and finish in the oven (about 10 to 15 minutes). Serve with lemon wedges.